Future of Retail Part I: Clothes Shopping ‘Jetsons-style’

Skypad Apartments, Orbit City, circa 2063. Homemaker and mother-of-two, Jane Jetson, is playing ‘dress-ups’ to find something to wear for a night out. It’s an age-old ritual that’s been performed by millions of women before her. Only, for Jane, there is no costume changing required. With the flick of a switch, her outfit – an image projected by her own personal ‘dress selector’ – goes from ‘early Galaxy’ to ‘Christian Di-Orbit’, moving in perfect synchrony with her body.

This, of course, is a scene from the futuristic cartoon The Jetsons. However, just as this popular show predicted robotic vacuum cleaners (cue the iRobot Roomba) and video chat (Skype, Facetime…), its take on the future of retail may well turn out to be another case of life imitating art.

The virtual fitting room 
In 1993, global communications company AT&T produced a concept video featuring a mother and her daughter ‘shopping’ for a wedding gown. They dial in to a bridal service, which asks the bride-to-be to authorise her electronic mannequin. It then brings up a simple avatar of her and lets them flip through different gowns to see what they will look like on her body, allowing them to customise various features along the way.

Fast-forward just over a decade and this vision is pretty much a reality.

Over the last few years, there has been a proliferation of virtual fitting room options popping up on clothing websites. They range in form and function from the very basic model – which estimates the fit of a garment based simply on a shopper’s age, height, weight and general body shape – to sophisticated robotic mannequins that are able to mimic the shape and size of any body type and can be customised with the shopper’s own face. The latter model, while much more realistic, involves significant (initial) input from the consumer, requiring them to provide detailed personal measurements, upload a photo of their face and create an account. This ‘virtual doppelganger’ model can also be onerous for retailers, especially those with rapidly changing stocklines, as it requires them to generate thousands of stock photos and accurate garment measurements.

Body scanning
For consumers who are put off by the idea of taking their own measurements, another new technology is emerging that does it for you. While they don’t eliminate the hassle of heading in-store, body scanning kiosks such as those operated by Canadian company Me-Ality, use radio waves to measure you with 100 percent accuracy. The Me-Ality kiosks, being rolled at malls around the US, match consumers’ measurements to sizing guides at nearby stores. The process takes about 20 seconds and is free for consumers (sponsored by partnerships with brands like Gap, Levi’s, Old Navy and American Eagle). However, as the Huffington Post notes, the free sizing scan from Me-Ality comes at a cost – not only is the consumer’s information shared with retailers, Me-Ality also sells the data to researchers and marketers.

3D printers for clothes?
The technology for on-demand, customised clothes manufacturing is already here. Shoes of Prey, for example, allows consumers to design their own shoes online, makes them and then ships them out. But what if you could just ‘print' them? Ultimately, Shoes of Prey co-founder Jodie Fox hopes her customers will be able to do exactly that.

While there are still limitations on the materials that can be used in 3D printing, and the technology is a little way off being in the hands of the average consumer, it is already being used to make things like jewellery, phone cases and glasses frames. Prototype shoes and other items of clothing are also being developed.

Industrial designer Joshua Harris, whose concept design for a clothing printer made the semifinals of the Electrolux Lab design competition in 2010, says the technology for a clothing printer exists but is not packaged in a form that would be suitable for consumer use. Harris’ design envisions fashion designers of the future selling cartridges of material and then selling their designs digitally for the user to print. Clothing could then be loaded back into the unit where it could be broken back down into thread and returned to its cartridge for future use. “With the future potential of printing technology, an at-home clothing printer is a definite possibility,” says Harris.

Joshua Harris' design concept for a clothes printer made the semifinals in the 2010 Electrolux Lab design competition.

Joshua Harris' design concept for a clothes printer made the semifinals in the 2010 Electrolux Lab design competition.