John Lewis' Mirror Trial The Latest In A Long Line Of Frustrated Efforts

For a half-dozen years, retailers have been struggling to find a way to make mirrors work as an in-store-to-Web sales device. Bloomingdale's was one of the first. Its idea was to let a shopper model prospective new outfits to the mirror, which would then transit the images live to the Web and allow comments from total strangers or a smaller group of logged in friends. Seems that it missed the fun social elements of physically shopping together.

Last year, the New York Times lab tried leveraging technology onto—I couldn't make this up—the mirror in a shopper's bathroom. Yes, it would beam images back and forth, superimposing ads—where it could—related to what the consumer was doing and helping to choose clothing. This week, it was British department store chain John Lewis' turn.

The Lewis mirrors, being trialed at its flagship London store, use cameras to capture a shopper in the mirror. But the image that is displayed in the mirror is not that shopper wearing whatever she is wearing. Instead it shows that shopper wearing whatever outfit she has selected. In theory, she could "try on" a dozen outfits within two minutes.

Like other mirror and related efforts, this setup (which had help from Cisco) enables images of the outfits and the shopper to be E-mailed to the shopper, and then shared with others. That's the sort of afterthought social media component.

The problem with John Lewis' mirror concept is that it doesn't truly address shopper concerns. Trying on an outfit—even in one of Macy's peek-a-boo changing rooms—is all about feeling the fabric, getting an exact sense of how it fits on you specifically (where does it feel tight or too loose?).

Even those body-measuring kiosks in malls that claim to take hundreds of thousands of measurements in a couple of moments ultimately deliver a garment that the customer must try on in a dressing room.

By the way, magic mirror variations never seem to go anywhere, but technology that sits in the dressing room? That seems to have a much better success rate. Why? Instead of trying to create a new experience that doesn't address the complaints about the old experience, it simply makes the existing method better.

What are the complaints about dressing rooms? Lack of privacy, having to lug too many outfits into too small a room, the challenge of getting an associate to unlock the doors and lack of comfort in general.

Nordstrom wants customer-owned mobile devices in the dressing room to be a key part of its growth, while Guess has a similar idea but wants it done by Guess-owned iPads. In Japan's Mitsukoshi chain, it was RFID and VoIP way back in 2006. Today, some of Japan's dressing rooms are toying with RFID hangers that properly manage inventory no matter what the customer hangs on them.

But a mirror that does a Photoshop superimposing of an idealized outfit on a shopper's video? Attention-generating novelty? Slightly. Something that will address customer needs and, therefore, have lasting power? You're better off asking, "Mirror mirror, at the mall, who has the fairest mirror gimmick of them all?"