A Blog by Jonathan Low


Dec 20, 2014

Psst! It's Me the Mannequin. You'd Look Fabulous in This Outfit

Let's expand the concept of social suggestion in shopping to include influencers you may not yet have met: store mannequins.

Anxious to break through with customers unsure about price, taste or selection, merchants are adding store mannequins equipped with a beacon that can contact your phone and suggest that you might want to try what they are modeling - or anything else in the store, for that matter.

The marriage of robotics and marketing appears to be an inevitable consequence of the confluence of technological forces influencing retail sales.

The reality is that the hopes invested in social networks promoting purchase decisions has not yet had the kind of impact its proponents had hoped for. But the data surrounding the analysis of sales suggests that many consumers value an alternative opinion, including one from an inanimate object programmed to encourage you to buy. Which, come to think of it, is not all that different from the advice many consumers already get. JL

Rachel Abrams reports in the New York Times:

The mannequins can send a signal to people within a 100-foot range of the store, trying to entice them in.
The mannequins want to tell you something.
Yes, they look like all the others: Lithe bodies with featureless faces that would be spooky in a dark museum at night.
But these can beckon you from outside the store, sending messages to your cellphones and beaming pictures of their outfits onto them. They are one of the latest efforts by the struggling retail industry to lure customers away from the Internet and back into brick-and-mortar stores.
“We decided we had to work out a way to bring the good old-fashioned mannequin into the 21st century,” said Jonathan Berlin, the managing director of Universal Display, the company that is selling mannequins with electronic implants.
If there is such a thing as a mannequin expert, Mr. Berlin would surely qualify. He bought Universal Display from his father, who had taken the business over from his stepfather, the founder, in 1951.
Mr. Berlin has worked with the company for nearly three decades, selling figures to Uniqlo, Lord & Taylor, Saks and other retailers around the country.
About a year ago, Mr. Berlin and his partner, Adrian Coe, had an idea to outfit their product with electronic beacons, small transmitters that can communicate with your cellphone.
Mr. Berlin and Mr. Coe created a separate company, Iconeme, just for the beacons, which interact with users through the company’s app. Shoppers can see what a store’s mannequins are wearing, who designed the clothes and how much they cost.
Don’t feel like going through the store to find an item? You can even buy it through the app.
To some, it might seem as if Iconeme were designed to take all the fun out of shopping. But Mr. Berlin argues that many people want to save time, love using their smartphones and could sometimes use a little extra help picking out an outfit.
“Some people don’t have the confidence to put an outfit together,” he said. “I think a lot of people need inspiration.”
Iconeme is not the only business trying to use technology to help people shop in stores. A company called MyBestFit created kiosks that quickly scan people’s bodies, analyze a database of clothes and make suggestions.
Once they had their idea, Mr. Berlin and Mr. Coe, a sculptor who has worked for Universal for the last 20 years, had to figure out where in the mannequin to hide their small, cylindrical beacon.
Open up the head and the line around the forehead could give the impression of a lobotomy. Other body parts did not offer the best reception.
“We tried positions all over the body,” Mr. Coe said.
Eventually they decided on the waist. The mannequins can send a signal to people within a 100-foot range of the store, trying to entice them in.
“Once they’re inside, half the battle is won,” Mr. Berlin said.
Iconeme’s first beacon mannequin began in Britain in August. Since then, about 3,500 people have downloaded the company’s app, Mr. Berlin said. Beacon technology is already popular with retailers along Regent Street, a high-end strip of stores in London, which already use beacons to ping shoppers with promotions and advertisements.
He said three retailers in the United States were testing his products, but declined to disclose them, citing confidentiality restrictions.
Mr. Berlin hopes that pharmacies or home improvement stores might also be interested
in using his products to advertise general merchandise.
After the 2008 economic collapse, some retailers have struggled with sluggish sales and declining foot traffic, as many consumers have moved online. Once-mighty American chains like Sears and J.C. Penney have floundered, and even Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, has had to develop new lines of business to attract customers to its stores.
Mr. Berlin says the larger struggles of the retail industry have not hurt his business. Universal sells about 35,000 mannequins a year, he said, and business is up 42 percent from last year.
But as the landscape has shifted, so have the mannequins. Competing to attract customers, some retailers have turned to provocative designs to attract consumers with unexpected poses, body shapes and faces.
Silvestri California, a manufacturer of custom mannequins, sells mannequins with wild hair and others inspired by German expressionism.
“Our pitch is probably about the same, but more people have been listening,” said Thomas Reistetter, Silvestri’s president.
Almax, an Italian company, even created a model with cameras embedded in the eyes to better track shoppers and what they look at.
“I don’t know if it’s something that we know enough information to know if it’s successful or not,” said Glenn Sokoli, an adjunct associate professor at Fashion Institute of Technology, of some of the technical advancements. “I think the pendulum swings back and forth, and there are times when realistic mannequins become very popular.”
Designers originally used mannequins in the early 20th century to help pin and tailor clothing. They eventually evolved into more lifelike forms, transitioning through styles as cultural tastes shifted.
“Why do mannequins all look the same?” Mr. Reistetter said. “You can walk down Fifth Avenue, and stores have forgotten that to survive as a brick-and-mortar entity, you have to be different.”


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