Could Lord & Taylor's "Claim Your Prom Dress" Effort Be Improved With ZIP Codes And Some Pull-Downs?

There's been some recent discussion about a clothing experiment that Lord & Taylor recently tried, where high-school girls were able to purchase a prom dress and then claim it for that event at that school, to theoretically make it less likely some other girl would show up at the prom wearing the same dress. (This seems to be a gender issue, because few guys would care if 500 other guys showed up wearing the same black-and-white tuxedo. But I digress.)

The idea is interesting but limited, in the sense that the same dress is being sold at other retailers. Avoiding the duplicate dress problem is not easy to solve. It also suffers from the problem of only working when the customer bothers to go through the tagging process. But why not use technology to make it a little easier and a little more universal? Why not use ZIP codes (IP address locations are typically too inaccurate and/or cover too wide an area to be practical for a prom no-duplicates strategy) and a high school pull-down menu (with a behind-the-scenes list of each school's primary ZIP codes) to flag likely repeats?

The suggestion is to create a two-stage test. The higher level is where every customer cooperates fully, indicating where they intend to use the product. The second level is where there is no customer involvement or cooperation. The retailer always has the right to track Zip Code—if the item is being shipped—and to tell a future customer, "We've already sold that exact dress eight times in your Zip Code. You've been warned."

For a little more customer effort, the site could offer a line (again, a pull-down to make the answers comparable) to indicate if the customer plans on wearing the dress at a particular event. This approach pushes this idea beyond high-school proms and could be used to flag apparel conflicts at any type of event or formal function. Weddings? Theater?

This could even be helpful beyond events. What about giving an option to indicate the name of an employer? Depending on the size of the employer, it might be nice to know if that business suit you've been wanting has already been purchased by anyone else within that company.

The nirvana would be using a centralized database accessible by multiple retailers (one-way access: all of the chains could pour data in but none could get data out), so a specific dress could be flagged consistently. This would require the joyous comparison of SKUs to identify the various names of the identical dress. Given the incredibly small chance that competitors would cooperate for such an effort, though, it might not be worth the effort.

The advantages of almost any of these variations—along with the original Lord & Taylor effort—are many. It provides additional CRM data, which is always nice. It generates retail loyalty, because it gives people a reason to encourage their friends and family to also shop at that same chain. And it sharply increases participation, with customers interacting with the site much more, which itself creates loyalty and a certain amount of reliance.

It also fuels more customer interest in merged channel. Why? If the purchase is happening in-store, it gives a strong, logical and natural reason for that customer to access the chain's Web site right then and there, while in the store, either through a kiosk, an associate's iPad or even the customer's Android or iPhone. All good things.

But there is the obvious downside, too. Why give customers a reason to not buy a product they like?

Then there is the potential to brush up against privacy concerns, although those are quite minimal. Using a ZIP code or a school isn't going to be especially revealing, and the customer clearly has to opt in to participate. Then again, the ZIP code search (especially when it's done by region, such as the primary area covering one high school or one company) might not require opt-in, where the system simply reports a warning to the customer.

I applaud the Lord & Taylor experiment and think it has great potential. But a creative E-Commerce approach could push this beyond high-school proms and make it more accurate and easier to deploy. Either that or consumers could just get over it and conclude that if a dress looks good on, that's all that matters. If someone else likes the same outfit, it's a compliment on your taste. (Yeah, I know. As the father of a high-school girl, that argument doesn't even work a little bit. But I feel a need to try anyway.)