J.C. Penney's Virtual Runway A Hint Of What It Might Have Been

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As a student of well-thought-out, creative E-Commerce initiatives, I was naturally excited to hear that as deep-pocketed and serious a chain as J.C. Penney was declaring an "innovative online experience" that was "one-of-a-kind" and demonstrated "leadership in the online retail space."

Imagine my disappointment when a rudimentary runway model demo was all that this experience amounted to. Barely two-dozen short videos of models walking. The "innovative" tricks ranged from zooming to seeing a model's back or front. (Even Mac allows you to fully spin.) Nothing on the model offered a mouse-over, but about three elements of the outfit displayed were listed on the right.

It's fine and all, but innovative and demonstrating E-Commerce leadership? Hardly. And yet, just down the E-Commerce corridor sit the ghosts of what J.C. Penney might have done had the company truly wanted to show E-Commerce leadership and innovation. Had it chosen to move from mediocre to meritorious, think of the customization potential in a runway show.

Options Galore

What if the site used virtual models or, at the very least, asked for various measurements. The site could offer to show all outfits only on models whose build matches the customer's. There are a finite number of basic models (likely no more than 50), and customization tools could allow customers to modify those images (making them somewhat taller or shorter, adding or subtracting weight or adjusting other measurements, and certainly changing hair color, skin tone and eye hue).

Target has toyed with something similar using holographic models. Sears and Lands' End have experimented with one variation in which consumers are allowed to drop their own headshots onto models' bodies. Best Buy is also toying with similar 3D techniques with its merchandise. These alternatives may not be ready for primetime, as it were, but at least the companies are trying to be innovative.

But what if, for example, a site used CRM data—courtesy of a login—to initially populate the models with clothes similar to what a customer has purchased, along with what the chain happens to want to push that day? What if the color choices of all items were based on the customer's historic preferences?

Now let's throw a little merged channel magic into this picture. What if the customer expressed a preference to visit a local physical store? How about offering the option of having the contents of that customer's virtual shopping cart neatly stacked and waiting inside a dressing room?

Take this to the next level: payment possibilities. How about offering a discount if the customer pays for all of the items right now on the Web? Then when the consumer goes to the store and likes what she sees, a sales clerk can quickly deactivate anti-theft tags and the consumer can run out the door without even approaching a POS. If the consumer only wants one item—or, heaven forbid, none, the unwanted items are simply handed to the clerk for a full and immediate refund. For that, though, customers would have to go to a POS. But there's no packing, shipping or any other return hassles.

The ability for a world-class apparel chain such as J.C. Penney to truly use customization, CRM and Web integration, along with merged channel payment and convenience, is only limited by the imagination of its executives. But if the consumer wants to see 24 nine-second videos of one-size-certainly-doesn't-fit-all models displaying a handful of clothing matches, well, JCP offers that now ... and less.