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Retailers Use Augmented Reality, High Tech To Lure Shoppers

In the fight against online retailers, brick and mortar retailers are finding new ways to go high tech.
People walk past the Apple Store while shopping at the Los Cerreitos Center mall on Black Friday in Cerritos
People walk past the Apple Store at the Los Cerreitos Center mall in Cerritos, California. REUTERS/Bret Hartman

When you walk into sustainable fashion brand Reformation's new store in the Mission district of San Francisco, you might be surprised to notice there is no cash register, and just one size of each clothing item is on display. There are also screens — lots of screens, inviting you to touch them.

Reformation has five stores across the country, but this newly opened location is the first to go high tech. CEO Yael Aflalo had been working for a couple of years on a way to "disrupt" the retail experience, Bree Richmond, Reformation's Vice President of Retail, told NBC News.

"We wanted to do something very different in the retail space. Something that no one has done before," said Richmond.

Customers at the new Reformation store can eye clothes on the rack like at a traditional store, but then use touchscreens around the store and in fitting rooms to select the size and color for any item. And, once that digital fitting room is created, a Reformation staffer in the store's basement will literally run the selected items upstairs and hang them from behind-the-scenes in the fitting room's "magic" wardrobe.

The wardrobe is built with proprietary technology: When a customer enters her fitting room, the items she selected are already there waiting, usually within two minutes. What the customer doesn't know is the wardrobe can be opened from both sides (don’t worry: not at the same time), so it can be stocked from the back and then opened by a ready customer from the other side.

Each fitting room also has a personal touch screen that customers use to order a new size or color, or a new item altogether. And, to make you feel right at home, there's also a docking station for your phone and to play your own music.

"It definitely feels like you're shopping in the future," said shopper Molly Marrone, swiping her credit card with Reformation's entirely mobile payment system on the store's opening day.

High-Tech Options Encourage More Customer Spending

Innovating to entice customers is not just for novelty; it's a business decision. According to shopping analytics firm Shoppertrak, foot traffic at retail stores was down 57 percent between 2010 and 2015. Brands like Reformation hope integrating tech will keep customers coming back.

"I hope it feels different for them in a really positive way," said Richmond of her store's customers. "A shopping experience that they weren't expecting, but they actually really enjoyed.”

Other brands across the country and online are following suit. IKEA's new Catalog App uses augmented reality to allow customers to virtually place and view 200 different IKEA products in their homes. All you need is a smartphone (unfortunately, no Swedish meatballs are included in the online app).

Shopping platform FaceCake has partnered with brands like NARS Cosmetics to let online shoppers try on everything from makeup to handbags. Using augmented reality and a camera-enabled device, online browsers can visualize products on their own moving image.

The 'Tried and True' of Retail Is No Longer Enough

Rebecca Minkoff's flagship store in Manhattan uses touchscreen technology developed by Oak Labs to replace standard mirrors with interactive surfaces. While shopping or in the fitting room, customers can touch the mirror to request alternative sizes, see style recommendations, change lighting or language, and even buy their products.

In an interview with NBC's Jo Ling Kent, Rebecca Minkoff said the "tried and true" of retail is no longer enough. "With multiple brands closing stores and brands not making it, I think if you are going into brick and mortar, that now is the time to embrace technology and figure out, 'What do you need to gain an edge on getting your consumer to come in?'"

Minkoff says when customers use the high-tech fitting room at her store, they buy on average three times more apparel than in a regular dressing room. And, Oak Labs has found customers spend 59 percent more if they engage with the Oak Mirror.

While retailers say this tech is designed to be easy to use, a shopper can opt out of the screens and seek help from a store associate at any time. “The technology is not to replace the human interaction,” said Bree Richmond at Reformation. “If you don’t want to use the touch screens, we’re happy to do it on our end."