Andrea Dragna's pre-pandemic pastime of scouting new makeup colors at Sephora has given way to a new, more socially distant ritual: trying on lipstick, eye shadow and blush through the webcam on her phone.
It's easy and surprisingly accurate, she says, and most importantly, doesn't require setting foot in a store. "It's the perfect way to shop in the days of COVID," said Dragna, 40, who ordered nearly $300 worth of cosmetics last weekend after a virtual try-on session.
The coronavirus pandemic is reshaping the way Americans shop. Stores are reopening but being reoriented to avoid interaction: Fitting rooms are taped off, sample counters are closed and product testers have been put away.
That's set off a scramble to re-create an integral part of the shopping experience, allowing people to virtually "try on" clothing, shoes, cosmetics, eyeglasses, even a new haircut or eyebrow shape, on their smartphones and computers. If consumers are presented with an authentic representation of themselves, analysts say, they are more likely to buy and less likely to make a return. But privacy experts warn the technology could also form a pipeline to valuable personal and biometric information.
Major retailers have dabbled in augmented reality for years, quietly testing novelty apps and in-store mirrors designed to replicate fitting rooms and sample counters. Those efforts intensified after the novel coronavirus led to stay-at-home orders and the temporary closures of hundreds of thousands of stores, catapulting the nation into recession. The industry's decadeslong slide added to the urgency, with as many as 25,000 stores projected to close for good this year. A number of major chains, including J.C. Penney, J. Crew and Neiman Marcus, have already filed for bankruptcy during the pandemic, as shoppers put the brakes on discretionary purchases.
Jewelry brand Kendra Scott adapted to pandemic-era shopping -- and the temporarily closure of its 108 stores -- by allowing shoppers to "try on" earrings using their iPhone browsers. Etsy, the online marketplace, has a new augmented reality feature on its app that shows customers how paintings, photographs and other decor would look on their walls. And Zeekit, which supplies augmented reality technology to brands such as Adidas and Tommy Hilfiger, is preparing to launch the world's largest virtual fitting room, with hundreds of thousands of pants, tops and coats that shoppers can drag onto photos of themselves.
But privacy experts say there are inherent risks: Testing a lipstick by webcam leaves a trail of personal and biometric data, valuable real-time insights into consumers' wants and lifestyles.
"This is data that companies are obviously very interested in," said Patrick Van Eecke, co-chair of the Global Data Protection, Privacy and Security Practice at the law firm DLA Piper. "You think they're taking your image and measuring your size, but the data being collected could be used for many different purposes. Once measured, once stored, it doesn't easily fade away."
Retailers can use that information for targeted marketing, both online and by mail, as they look for new and more effective ways to reach consumers, he said.
Shoppers, he and other privacy experts said, need to check whether apps are recording their reflections as they try on clothing or scanning their surroundings for clues on how -- and what -- to market to them. Even a 30-second video session to sample eye shadow could give away geolocation tags that, combined with shopping and browsing histories, can give retailers an intimate window onto a shopper's lifestyle and habits.
"The question that's always circling is: Does the app collect information about your body or your surroundings in order to better sell products to you?" said Yang Feng, an assistant professor at San Diego State University whose work focuses on how brands use augmented reality and machine learning. "But at the same time, online try-on makes a lot of sense during the pandemic: People are afraid of going to physical stores, so they're choosing the virtual."
Some retailers are looking beyond apps and browsers to bring "contactless" fittings into stores. Brookfield Properties, one of the nation's largest mall operators, recently said it will add 3-D body scanners that can direct consumers to the clothing brands and sizes that will fit them best. The technology, analysts said, is just the latest effort by clothes sellers and shopping malls to boost traffic to their stores.
"Demand for all kinds of technology in retail has exploded," said Deborah Weinswig, chief executive of Coresight Research. "We are seeing years of innovation in a matter of months."
MAC Cosmetics has installed virtual try-on mirrors at 120 stores and counting. It also is investing heavily in technology that allows shoppers to try on lipstick, eye shadow and foundation by webcam. Executives say demand for virtual try-ons has tripled since the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
"Even before the pandemic, we were seeing increased interest, but the last couple of months have added new urgency," said Adam Gam, chief marketing officer for Perfect Corp, which provides augmented reality technology to beauty brands including MAC. "We're in a period of social distancing where everybody wants to go contactless and touchless."
Virtual samplings have increased 32% since the pandemic took hold in the United States in March, Gam said. Shoppers who try a product online -- a shade of hair dye, say, or a pair of false eyelashes -- are nearly three times as likely to buy the item. They spend 10% more, and are less likely to return products, he said.
But marketing experts say the usefulness of such apps varies wildly, depending on the product. Makeup or jewelry, which tend to be more visual purchases, are more likely to be successful in online fitting rooms than functional and fitted items like jeans or shoes, said Aradhna Krishna, a marketing professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.
"Maybe an app shows you what a shoe looks like on your foot in all sorts of different colors, but that doesn't tell you anything about how the shoe feels when you walk," she said. "It isn't always enough to just see how something looks."
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Before she came up with the world's largest virtual fitting room, Yael Vizel was a captain in the Israeli air force, using telecommunications software to map the Earth's topographies. Somewhere along the way, she had what she calls her "Eureka moment."
"We realized that the human body is like a topography, with mountains and valleys," she said. "You can add on any clothing item as though it's an intelligence map, and you've got a Holy Grail of online fashion."
Vizel co-founded Zeekit, which means "chameleon" in Hebrew, five years ago and has expanded to include department store chain Macy's and British fast-fashion brand Asos among its clients. Demand, she says, has grown so fast during the pandemic that she's expanded her staff by nearly 50%, from 27 to 40, to keep up.
Shoppers who use the company's artificial intelligence to virtually try on clothing are five times more likely to purchase the item, she said. They also are more likely to keep what they buy: Return rates, Vizel said, drop from 38% to about 2%. By comparison, overall return rates for clothing and shoes bought online are about 40%, compared with less than 10% for in-store purchases.
Her next act, launching in October, will be a virtual fitting room that will allow shoppers to upload a full-body photo of themselves, then try on millions of outfits, including swimwear and bridal gowns, from some of the country's largest retailers.
Retailers, she said, will pay about $45 per article of clothing to be included on the site. The process itself is fairly low-tech: Brands submit two-dimensional photos of each item of clothing -- say, from a catalog -- and enter in metadata information such as fabric and dimensions to create accurate renderings that show, for example, how a cotton dress would drape differently than silk on a customer's body.
"Coronavirus has created a mindset shift," Vizel said. "We're not running into stores. We're more open to shopping online but we also want to be confident in our purchases."
Vizel says users must opt in to the company's privacy terms and conditions when they upload their photos. Shoppers' photos will be saved onto Zeekit's servers, she said, but will not be shared with other companies. "The most important part of getting into a fitting room is feeling safe," she said.
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Suitsupply, a clothing brand with 140 stores worldwide, started offering a "co-browsing" online service in April in which employees guide shoppers through the brand's website. The service was meant to fill in for shopping appointments while stores were closed. But executives decided to retain the program long term. Even though stores are reopening, shoppers still want to spend as little time in them as possible, executives said, which means they're increasingly relying on video calls to pick out what they want before they arrive.
"This is something we're going to keep doing even after the pandemic," said Fokke de Jong, the company's chief executive. "It creates a more efficient shopping experience, helps regulate occupancy and means people end up buying more because they've already prescreened everything in their fitting room."
When the pandemic forced Kendra Scott to temporarily close all of its stores in mid-March, executives fast-tracked their plans to allow customers to virtually sample nearly 600 pairs of earrings on their iPhone browsers. They introduced the technology in April and are planning to expand into necklaces, rings and bracelets. Like many of their peers, they also are looking for ways to incorporate the technology in stores, where customers are required to wear masks and use hand sanitizer before handling jewelry.
"We wanted our customers to feel just as confident in their purchases when they're shopping online as they do when they're shopping in our stores," said Tom Nolan, president of Kendra Scott. "With this new tool you can preview exactly what the style is going to look like on you before you commit to buying."
Retailers are finding other uses for technology, too. Some, including David's Bridal and Lululemon, are connecting shoppers with virtual stylists to help them browse merchandise online. Others, such as Asos, are using augmented reality software to outfit website models during the pandemic.
"It's become an arms race: Companies want to have every product available in 3-D and augmented reality because they want customers to have a reliable and strong shopping experience," said Vince Cacace, chief executive of Vertebrae. His company, which works with retailers like Crate & Barrel and Herschel Supply Co., recently shifted its focus to e-commerce after years of making augmented reality software for Hollywood studios.
Demand has doubled in recent months, he said, as retailers realize they need to make new investments in their websites and apps.
The company uses detailed 3-D models of each item -- a hat, say, or a pair of sunglasses -- and whittles them down into simpler images that can be manipulated in real time. The entire process can take eight to 15 hours per product, he said, though detailed items like handbags, shoes and luxury goods typically take longer.
He is also planning to add virtual try-on options -- both online and in stores, so shoppers can use augmented reality mirrors to customize suits.
"We've considered it before but it never really took off," de Jong said. "But as with all of these things, when you're in this pandemic everybody is willing to try all sorts of new stuff. People are sitting at home and they're saying, 'Hey, let me give this a chance.' There's a new urgency now."