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Learning From Prada

The Italian clothier has put RFID tags on every item in its New York Epicenter store. This is more than just a clever marketing ploy.
Tags: Retail
Jun 24, 2002June 24, 2002 - On the northwest corner of Prince Street and Broadway in Manhattan's excruciatingly trendy Soho district, there's a nondescript brick building with green trim. The only sign on it is for the Guggenheim museum. The store on the ground level is not identified. That is only one of many things that make the Prada Epicenter store an unusual experiment in retailing.
Inside the Soho store

The store opened on Dec. 15, 2001, and immediately garnered extensive media coverage for its bold redesign of the retail space and the use of technology throughout the store. But while many articles have either lauded or derided the high-tech design, few have given any real thought to the concepts being tested in the store.

The Prada store, no doubt, is a clever marketing strategy. The Italian clothier spent a reported $40 million on it. The company hired noted Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas to reinvent the retail environment in an effort to reinvigorate the Prada brand. Some architectural critics like the bold, two level store, which features a sloping wood floor, which Koolhaas calls "the wave," a large staircase for displaying shoes, and cages and shelving that slide on tracks, so the space can be changed easily.

Technology plays a big role in the store. There are video monitors that hang from racks or are embedded in tables. An alcove at the back of the basement level is lined with small video monitors playing a steady stream of random clips. A large round, glass enclosed elevator that shuttles customers between the ground floor and basement level.

And you've probably read about the dressing rooms, which feature clear glass that turns opaque when you step on a round black button on the floor. Inside are two boxes made of thick, semi-transparent Lucite. Both have thick, flat bronze ribbons embedded in them – the RFID antennas. One is small and square and is used for shoes and purses and whatnot. The other is long and narrow, for hanging clothes.

Pick up any pair of shoes or handbag or dress and you'll find a clear RFID tag, with the antenna and chip clearly visible. On shelves around the store are small handheld readers. Staff – mostly good-looking guys in black suits – can scan the tag on a $2,000 suit. They can then use a video monitor to show the suit on the runway, show a collection photographs and designer sketches, or providing more in-depth information about the color, cut, fabric and materials used to create it.

If you want to try on your suit, you enter the high-tech dressing room and hang it in the smart closet. The closet reads the RFID tag and displays information about the suit on a liquid crystal screen with a touch-screen overlay. You can flick through accessories or see the same item in different colors. The content displayed is all related to the item in the closet, part of the same line or "look" in Prada's parlance. The sales associate can use the screen to up-sell by showing you items that might go well with your suit.

Prada hired IconNicholson, the New York arm of IconMedialab, to do much of the integration work and to write the software for the screens that display the Prada products. A British company called KTP (now part of TrenStar) handled the RFID technology. Texas Instruments supplied the RFID tags.

Bruce Eckfeldt, Icon's engagement manager on the project, describes the Epicenter store as a cross between a concept store and a laboratory. "Prada wanted to test some concepts in the real world," he says. "They will see what works and then deploy it in other stores, as is or in some modified way. It gives them the opportunity to learn based on feedback and to build a better and more successful retailing environment in the future."

So what's working? Unfortunately, its still too early to tell. And Prada declined to be interviewed for this article. But even without hard numbers, it's clear that the Prada store is pioneering some retailing concepts that will likely become common in the years ahead. Click over to the next page and we'll explain the thinking behind the technology and tell you what Prada is doing right.

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