Peeking into the changing room

September 6, 2015 by Martha’s Dad


A few years ago, I did some research into multichannel consumer behaviour. Along with the fashion retailer who generously sponsored the work, I was interested in why the same group of consumers regularly shop with the same retail chain via different channels on different occasions.  Specifically, in store, via the retailer’s traditional catalogue and online.  The answer to this question was complex, and inherently situational, but revealing nonetheless.

I found that one of the advantages of the home shopping option was very much its social dimension.  Consumers value a shared experience when shopping for clothes, of trying them on, swapping views and opinions, generally enjoying being with one another.  True, it is possible to do this in the retail store itself – indeed, the social dimension was the single most important advantage of in-store shopping in my research – but it is increasingly becoming difficult to achieve.  Consumers often told me that they were simply too ‘time-pressed’, for instance, or that they found the typical retail changing room too clinical and claustrophobic.  One customer, Leanne, remarked that she was “made to feel like a battery hen” in most retail fitting areas, queues of shoppers all lined up clutching their usually-limited number of items and waiting impatiently for their own brief moment in a cubicle “too small to swing a cat in, let alone try on a skirt!”  To Leanne and many others, the whole experience just wasn’t a patch on the company and conversation and wine and shared sociality that comes with shopping in the comfort of ones own living room.

Somewhere in the thesis I eventually got a PhD out of this work for, I suggested that canny retailers would do well to try to replicate aspects of the at-home experience in their stores.  I was therefore reassured to now find the exact same sentiments being expressed by Fiona Briggs over on the Retail Times site recently.  Briggs was reporting results of a major study by market researchers Indyme into consumer behaviour within the retail changing room.  Many of the key messages certainly brought Leanne back into my mind!

Unsurprisingly, 82% of shoppers expressed a higher intention to buy when they can actually wear, touch and experience clothes, rather than just examine them hanging on a rail.  Over 40% also value the advice and support of sales assistants located within the fitting area, a figure way in excess of what is generally found in other areas of the store where we are more cynical of the assistant’s motives.  Leanne again: “They’re bound to say you look gorgeous because they want to make a sale, even if you look like a bloody blancmange!”  

Unfortunately, though, it seems retailers are rather neglectful and often downright unwelcoming when it comes to this surprisingly high-trust area of retail space, shoppers complaining of cramped conditions, at-times poor decor and the increasingly common practice of having these areas locked (for ‘security’ reasons) so customers have to go asking for a key. Their concerns typically relate to shrinkage and manpower. They worry what we will get up to when in the privacy of the cubicle and see the high costs involved in staffing them as something of a luxury.  Moreover, as retail floor space becomes increasingly precious, the humble fitting area is seen as offering a poor return-on-investment in terms of sales-by-footage.

Retailers really are missing a trick here! As both my work and the Indyme research clearly show, there is much to be gained by making the retail changing rooms more enticing and customer-friendly.  Home-shoppers order more goods and return many items, that’s true, but it’s also the case that the social act of home shopping means they also buy more goods too.  If we could make the fitting areas more like a customer’s living room and encourage shoppers to linger more – as bookshops have become savvy to through their in-store coffee shops – then this can very easily be turned into a prime-yield retail space.

We have seen real innovation in the waiting areas retailers often provide to those accompanying the fashion shopper.  The so-called “boyfriend creches” and “granny parks” that have sprung up in recent years show what can be achieved with a little thought and modest investment, their free coffee/tea, magazines and TV sports channels being a very pleasant place to be dumped while one’s spouse tries on endless shoes!  The same logic needs to be applied inside the fitting areas themselves.  Make the changing rooms more spacious and relaxing, encourage lingering and socialising, and the whole shopping experience could be transformed in a very profitable way, particularly if the sales staff within them are also empowered to take payment and provide a fast-track purchase option.  The message of this latest research, like my own a decade ago, is very clear:  there’s money in this!

Hate to say “I-told-you-so”, but…