Can Aéropostale's iPad Pied Piper Turn Teen Browsers Into Buyers?

Aéropostale, the 1,108-store teen apparel chain with stores in all 50 U.S. states, is trying a creative iPad jukebox flytrap experiment to precisely track clothing, teen and music interactions. By giving teens control of the songs, they will gleefully wait 30 minutes to hear their tunes throughout the store—time spent browsing and likely buying.

The potential here isn't just to track generic music influences. The stores can already play different songs in different areas of the store and specific dressing rooms, with the sound bleeding out of the store and into the mall. What if specific songs influence—or attract—shoppers focused on specific types of clothing? Which tunes pull in tire-kickers and which are good buyer lures? Critically, though, this is all based on the psychology of how teens interact with apparel. It has very little to do with actual tailoring.

One small part of the iPad trial involves a jukebox-like function, where shoppers choose the songs they want played in the store. It can take as many 30 minutes before the song plays—and those teen shoppers will wait right there until it does, browsing and shopping to fill the time—all while the iPad captures every intent. And if a purchase is made with that iPad's sled (a version to be integrated with Google Wallet is mere weeks away, assuming Google doesn't plan and delay its new wallet announcement, as it did on Monday [Oct. 22]), everything before that gets married to a buyer—especially the song selections.

The core of this mobile trial is routine, with the iPad showing demos, enabling clothes to be mixed and maxed, and doing 10 other things every teen apparel iPad in-store app does. But it's the musical focus that is powerful, and it's the first time we've seen any retailer use a mobile trial to get that granular. "It's capturing data about what that user is doing on the actual tablet itself. Analytics drives every single piece of investment," said Jason Taylor, the product head for Usablenet, the vendor working with Aéropostale on the iPad trial.

The trial started on October 19. Initially using only four store-owned-and-controlled iPads, Taylor said the trial could easily be expanded to offer the same capabilities through a mobile app on customer-owned tablets and smartphones.

The magic, though, is in the music. I didn't appreciate how powerful that was for Aéropostale's audience until I did a mini focus group with my 15-year-old daughter and some of her friends. Even as a middle-aged guy (cue Gracie Allen joke: "His middle hasn't aged any more than the rest of him."), I certainly understood the powerful connection between teenagers and music. But the exchange I had caught me off-guard.

The conversation started by asking the teens about their perception of Aero, and they agreed they no longer went to that chain—although they used to (as in a few months ago) be fans. Why no longer a fan? The clothing style was too narrow, and they didn't like the choices much. Sounds like a perfectly reasonable reason to stop shopping at a chain. But as is often the case with teenage conversations, reason has a frighteningly short shelf-life.That's because I then briefed them on the iPad trial and the music selection component. Eyes perked up. "For that," I was told, "we'd definitely go into the store." Why? "Well, we're in the mall anyway, and if we like the songs—and especially if we can make everyone else listen to our favorite songs—why not?"

As I saw my dreams of raising a logical consumer advocate melting away, my daughter added the killer line: "And as long as we're in there, while waiting for our stuff to play, I'd probably buy something." Her friends nodded in agreement. There you have it. In the space of barely two minutes, they went from agreeing that they didn't find the clothes being sold at Aéropostale of any interest to saying that they would probably buy some anyway. And it merely took the suggestion of music control to flip them.

The music for this trial comes from Mood Media—which you might remember from its creative Macy's and ShopKick project—and therein lies some more interesting possibilities. One of Mood's abilities is serious isolation, enabling a retailer to play different tunes in different parts of the store. But how to make the choices? That's where the data comes into play.

One of the least interesting parts of the trial is the ability to play a specific song in the dressing room a shopper is in, "to have your own music party in your dressing room" as Usablenet's Taylor said. That misses the point in two ways. First, as a practical matter, any shopper can already do that by simply using their iPod or any other mobile device. More importantly, though, the attraction to the jukebox concept is a time-honored teen tradition: making others focus on you, listen to what you want them to hear, watch what you want them to watch. It gives teens the ever-so-attractive illusion of control.

In a major way, that is truly at the heart of teen apparel choices, and that's why this trial resonates so well. It's all about choosing a style not for yourself, necessarily (that's a self-confident approach that is a teen rarity), but to show everyone else how you want them to perceive you.

Here's the potential value in the Mood/Aero combo. Mood's people track national and regional music trends, so they know when to take songs out of the rotation for a demographic and when to add new ones in. But the retailer, powered by mobile trials like these, can drill down far deeper into its own customers and prospects and make song-to-apparel type-to-action (buy) associations. And that's music to the ears of any retailer.