PENNEY SELLS BACK-TO-SCHOOL CLOTHES THE DIGITAL WAY
By Jane L. Levere, the New York Times
AUGUST 2, 2010- J. C. Penney is using a new augmented reality online shopping application to sell fall back-toschool clothing to teenage girls.
Created by metaio, a software developer based in Munich, the application lets shoppers use the Web camera on their home computer to enter a “virtual dressing room,” browse through, try on and buy clothes.
Penney is sponsoring the dressing room on the fashion channel of Seventeen.com, the recently redesigned Web site of the Hearst magazine for teenage girls; it also is running the dressing room on Kaboodle.com, Hearst s social Web site for shoppers.
The virtual dressing room, which went live last week, is part of Penney s continuing digital marketing campaign, said Mike Boylson, the company s chief marketing officer.
“The idea of augmented reality is a completely new level of interactivity” for Penney, a popular retailer among teenage girls, Mr. Boylson said. The virtual dressing room, he added, puts the retailer on the “cutting edge,” since it allows shoppers to virtually try on clothes.
Although Mr. Boylson said Penney hoped the dressing room would stimulate clothing sales, “it is more about brand engagement and the sense of discovery than the number of pieces of clothing we sell off the site. We know teens love style and technology, and that they know how to navigate” applications like the virtual dressing room.
He also said he expected the dressing room would be visited by girls ages 12 to 17.
Augmented reality, a technology that combines a real image with a virtual one, has become increasingly popular among marketers who use it to get people to interact with their ads or products. Last year, for example, Papa John s International introduced a pizza box that could be held up to a Webcam and turned into a virtual car, a replica of its founder s 1972 Camaro, while General Electric created an augmented-reality windmill Web site after it ran a Super Bowl commercial promoting its smart grid technology. This year Adidas introduced a new line of sneakers with a code on their tongue that owners can point to a Webcam and use to play video games; the shoe acts as the game controller.
What makes the metaio virtual dressing room software new is that it enables shoppers to automatically try on clothing within the live-video stream. They do not need a marker, an image that is usually printed out by online shoppers, who hold it up to a Webcam to set off augmented reality technology; in the Penney virtual dressing room, the shopper s body acts as the marker. Nor do Penney shoppers have to upload a still image of the clothing they are trying on.
To shop in Penney s virtual dressing room, prospective buyers activate their computer s Webcam and enter the dressing room, where they select an item of clothing that interests them. They then position themselves within a silhouette that pops up on their computer screen, and wave their hands to adjust the clothing for a proper fit. If they like the item, they can take a screenshot of themselves in it to send to friends or post on Facebook. If they don t like it, they can try on other items of clothing. The dressing room also links shoppers directly to J. C. Penney s Web site to make purchases.
There are 34 back-to-school items currently for sale on the site, including t-shirts, jackets, sweaters, jeans and dresses; approximately 50 will be available by the end of August. Penney will change the selection twice again before the end of the year.
Mr. Boylson said the virtual dressing room was "very inexpensive" to develop and represented a "very small part" of Penney s back-to-school marketing expenditures, which he declined to quantify.
However, he said there is a "huge synergy" between online and offline sales for Penney, noting that the former greatly influences the latter. He said that less than 20 percent of people who visit Penney s Web site actually make a purchase; the majority are researching products or looking for promotions. Thus, Penney estimates that every dollar spent on its Web site influences every $5 of in-store purchases. In 2009, the company s sales were $17.6 billion, of which $1.5 billion were generated through its Web site.
Kristine Welker, vice president of sales and marketing for Hearst Magazines Digital Media, a division of the Hearst Magazines unit of the Hearst Corporation, said the virtual dressing room was "a great way for consumers to engage and play with the J.C. Penney brand and their line of products in the context of our brand, Seventeen."
She also said the retailer would advertise the virtual dressing room on Seventeen.com and Kaboodle.com.
Metaio s virtual dressing room software application was inspired by software developed by Boeing for aircraft maintenance, said Noora Guldemond, the company s head of sales and marketing at its San Francisco-based United States office.