A couple of years ago, the apparel industry was abuzz about Me-Ality, a tech startup from Nova Scotia, Canada, with a radical proposition: If 3-D digital scanning booths could size you up at airport security, then why couldn't they measure you for the perfect-fitting pair of jeans?
Me-Ality's large, hexagonal booths did, in fact, look a lot like the ones you'd find at Chicago O'Hare or LAX, only these devices were set up at retail locations. Inside, an electronic wand would make several rotations around a standing subject, using radio waves to collect 200,000 body measurements. The media ate up the technology, dubbing Me-Ality (pronounced like "reality") a "miracle worker." By 2011, the booths were set up in multiple Bloomingdale's locations and more than 70 shopping malls.
While it seemed for a moment that this advancement might change clothes shopping forever, it didn't quite work out that way. Last year, Me-Ality mothballed most of its machines, with former employees taking to the job board Indeed.com to tell of mass layoffs and faulty equipment. (Me-Ality did not respond to requests for comment for this story, while Bloomingdale's media relations director Jamie Frankel said the company does not comment on its partners.)
What went wrong? If digital technology has redefined how we live, work, play, eat, shop and everything in between, then why can't it help you find a blazer that fits?
As retail consultant Bob Grayson puts it, the scanner in 2011 might have looked like the future but now serves as an example of "the overreach of technology." Grayson points out while a machine that can take thousands of body measurements might seem impressive, that does little good when apparel brands still make only 15 sizes of a given garment. "The leap from the detail that was available from the machines to the choices that were available in the store wasn't a match," he explains. "That was a flaw that we didn't see at the time."
Another problem was that many consumers—notably, women shopping for jeans—were simply not all that comfortable with the idea of a machine scanning their bodies, especially in a public place. Says Sarah Ahmed, creative director of jeans brand DL1961: "Denim shopping is one of the most daunting shopping experiences for women," and the trouble with 3-D body mapping is that it's a bit too much reality for many consumers. "It's kind of silly, but people don't really want to see [what they look like]," Ahmed notes. "They think they look a certain way, but when you see mapping, it's … physicality. That's the reason it won't work for a brand like ours, even if those Me-Ality things worked in our favor."
DL1961 has employed digital technology in a less-invasive iteration. During the holiday shopping season, the brand installed the Denim Doctor—a kiosk featuring a touchscreen computer whereby a shopper can select her body type and enter her measurements—at Nordstrom stores. The computer also asks the shopper about her lifestyle—the climate where she lives, whether the jeans will be worn for work or during leisure time. An algorithm then crunches all that data and displays various styles and cuts on a rotating, computer-generated figure. "The way to really sell denim is 360-degree shots and body mapping—without a woman stripping down to her underwear," as Ahmed puts it.
Indeed, showing customers how clothes will look on their bodies without actually scanning their bodies is a more practical tool for retailers, says James Gambrell, CEO of U.K.-based Fits.me, whose clients include Hugo Boss and Thomas Pink. Fits.me offers apparel brands a range of online fitting-room solutions.
First, a shopper picks out a garment, then enters assorted data about himself like age, height, weight and body type, enabling the calculation of his body mass index. Using shape-shifting mannequins, a screen displays what the garment will look like on a computer-generated torso. Gambrell says the technology, which fits clothing to consumers with 97 percent accuracy, makes more sense than body scanners, which, he notes, are mostly used for retailer promotional events. "It's a laborious undertaking, and not meant to be mainstream," he says.
And yet, the scanners still have their true believers. New York entrepreneur Jamal Motlagh has seen encouraging results with his own machine—with a twist. While women might balk at stepping into the booths, guys seem OK with it.
Four years ago, Motlagh began using a body-scanning booth with the intention of making custom-fitted jeans for women. When that didn't work out the way he had envisioned, he opened the retail store Acustom Apparel in New York's SoHo neighborhood and began catering to men instead. Today, he has a steady clientele and plans to expand. For men, Motlagh says, the scanner has turned out to be a significant draw because it frees them from losing an afternoon trying on clothing in stores. "The big fear is that you could go shopping for hours and not find something, and it sucks," he says. But at his shop, "you walk in and in 10 minutes you've been scanned and you walk out with a bunch of clothing."
Motlagh's scanner uses proprietary software that creates custom-tailored patterns; the patterns are sent to a production facility in China that makes the clothing and then ships it directly to clients. (The turnaround is two to three weeks for pants, four to six weeks for a suit.) The considerable wait time can be a drawback, but the certainty that a garment will fit can make it worthwhile. Motlagh isn't selling fashion so much as convenience, after all—and none of it would be possible without the airport-style scanning booth. "The body scanner is better and it's a cool experience," he says. Motlagh originally thought he would draw young men "who liked the scan thing," who would think the store was tech-forward. Instead, his average customer is a midcareer executive in his 40s with precious little time for shopping.
And another benefit of the scanner, Motlaugh notes: It helps men, young and old, avoid the experience they dread perhaps more than any other: going into a department store and "walking through the perfume department."