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Tag Sale

RFID technologies offer retailers new ways to serve customers and enhance the shopping experience—and some stores are taking advantage today.
By Alexander C.H. Skorna and André Richter
Aug 06, 2007—By Jennifer Zaino

Robert Savage is convinced he's seen the future of retailing, and he credits his 8-year-old daughter for the insight. Observing her use of the Internet and text messaging to share experiences with friends, the president of Nanette Lepore fashions had an epiphany: Social networking is changing the expectations of young people in myriad ways. Sooner or later, it's going to affect the way they want to shop.

If Savage has his way, it will be sooner. He hopes to partner with a high-end department store where Nanette Lepore clothing is sold to offer consumers an RFID-enabled "social retailing" shopping experience. It would allow a woman to show remote friends and family the items she's considering and get their immediate feedback. The concept was tested in March for three days at Bloomingdale's in Manhattan. "We want to be cutting-edge not only in fashion, but in retail as well," he says. "It's good for the brand."

Bloomingdale's customers enjoyed the Nanette Lepore social-retailing shopping experience. They liked using the interactive mirror to get feedback from friends.

Savage has been collaborating with IconNicholson, a full-service digital agency that worked on an RFID installation at Prada's Manhattan store, which included reader-equipped hot spots where customers could take a tagged product to find out whether it was available in different sizes or colors. (A fire about a year ago destroyed much of the RFID infrastructure.) In a real-world deployment, the Nanette Lepore RFID project could work like this: A shopper would go to an area outside the dressing room where a three-paneled interactive mirror would be located. The mirror would have a built-in RFID interrogator and a high-definition video camera, and the Nanette Lepore fashions would carry ultrahigh-frequency tags. When the shopper stood in front of the mirror with the tagged clothing, the mirror could display information such as other sizes or colors of the items in stock, or recommend accessories to pair with the outfit.

The RFID system would also allow the shopper to use her cell phone to upload the e-mail or IM addresses of chosen friends and family members, who would receive a message containing a link to the Web site where her fashion session was being broadcast. They could go to the site to see what clothing she was considering and use applets on the site to, for instance, vote on whether the outfit was "hot or not," or type in comments recommending another accessory. The shopper would then view the comments on one of the mirror's panels.

Social retailing could have particular appeal to Net-savvy, text-message-obsessed teenagers, but Savage thinks it applies even more generally to Nanette Lepore's clientele, regardless of their age. "It's the way women shop," he says. "They like to have input."

RFID technology could help manufacturers and retailers redefine the in-store shopping experience for consumers. As online shoppers increasingly become accustomed to having instant access to information—from whether a particular item is in stock to the social principles of the company—they're going to expect the same service from brick-and-mortar retailers.

"How do I support the fact that I can get tons of research online but no information in store?" asks Rachael McBrearty, former VP of creative strategy at IconNicholson. "Why aren't we starting to think about what customers really need when they're shopping?"
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