Magic Mirror on the Wall

“Does this look any good on me?” When I was young, the person who heard that refrain (lament, actually, is more accurate) the most often from me was my mother. More often than not, we disagreed, particularly as I entered my teen years.

“I wish Bernadette was here,” (or Linda or whoever else qualified for “best friend” title at the time), I would say. “She would tell me.”

After all this time, it’s amazing how little has changed and, at the same time, how different everything is. My friend’s niece Becky, 17, loves to shop. When it comes to making a purchase, she values the opinion of her friends above all else. So much so she uses her cell phone to send photos of herself from the fitting room to her friends.

A new high-tech spin on the classic “mirror, mirror on the wall” fairy tale aims to make it even easier for Becky and her cohorts to share the shopping experience. It’s an interactive fitting-room mirror—the technology is called “social retailing” by creator IconNicholson—that at its most elemental level allows shoppers to send an image of themselves to friends via e-mail or cell phone or even to their own MySpace page. Friends vote “yes” or “no” and make comments on the outfit and text message back. The mirror displays the vote tally and messages. It’s all connected to the Web.

“It will be stores in the next year,” said Tom Nicholson, founder and managing director of the New York City-based company. He would not reveal the names of the retailers involved.

IconNicholson unveiled the concept at the National Retail Federation’s 2007 Convention in New York City. It was the centerpiece of the show’s “Store of the Future” space and it created a big buzz. When I expressed doubt as to its viability, an IconNicholson person working the display politely put me in my place.

“This isn’t aimed at people like you,” he said. “It’s for younger people. We don’t expect older [watch it, I told him] shoppers to send images across the Web.”

He’s right, of course. Style-conscious young fashionistas already share photos of themselves through fashion social-networking sites (take a look at ShareYourLook. com) and are constantly checking out MySpace and similar sites to see what their friends are wearing.

The debut of the technology came at the perfect time. IBM Global Business Services released a report at the same show detailing the differences in shopping habits between teens and baby boomers. The study found that for boomers, shopping is all about the “end,” while for teens it is about the “means.” When teens were asked about the biggest influence on their purchases, 67% named friends and peers.

“It is the social factor that is important, namely sharing the experience with friends online or in a store,” the IBM study said. “Nearly two-thirds said they use their cell phones to send text messages to a friend while shopping. Some girls also report sending a friend photos from their cell phone before making a purchase in store. When shopping online, nearly 30% of teens said they used the “e-mail a friend” link to gain advice.”

The magic-mirror lets a retailer hook into the social connections that matter so much to today’s young consumers. Retailers that incorporate these and other digital tools into their merchandising and marketing mix are likely to have a competitive edge in the future, at least with Becky and her friends.