Fitting-Room Blues

I keep reading about how retailers are upgrading their fitting rooms, about how they are making the individual stalls larger and adding all sorts of enhancements. But the reality doesn’t live up to the hype, at least not yet. We still have a long way to go before such features are standard.

I say this based on a recent weekend of intense shopping for the item that probably inspires more anxiety among women than any other single article of clothing: a swimsuit. I visited lots of stores (mostly mid-market ones), stood nearly naked in lots of fitting rooms. And here’s what I found:

Too many fitting rooms are cramped, dreary and ill-kept, with piles of discarded garments left over by previous shoppers. And while I’m not choosy about carpet style, standing barefooted on a dirty, stained carpet is another matter entirely. It’s a major turn-off. Customers deserve a clean floor.

Overhead fluorescent lighting, still all too common in fitting rooms, is harsh and unflattering. Adding some lighting directly to the mirror to reduce the shadows cast by overhead lamps can do wonders. Other complaints: single-view mirrors and hooks (or the lack thereof). Too many fitting rooms still have only one hook. (I’m not counting hooks that dangle precariously from the wall.)

In several stores I visited, the dressing rooms were so chilly as to be downright uncomfortable, particularly for trying on swimwear. When I mentioned it to the sales associate in the area, she just shrugged.

Despite my glum assessment, I do think some retailers are waking up to the crucial role fitting rooms play in the shopping experience. Following Macy’s example, J.C. Penney has debuted fitting rooms that are large enough to accommodate strollers or groups of friends and include tastefully appointed lounge areas with flat-screen televisions. The try-on rooms in some of its new lingerie departments are almost sexy: purple from ceiling to carpet with curtains dramatically draped over framed mirrors. Plush stools replace the standard Formica benches.

At Martin + Osa, the new concept from American Eagle Outfitters, the fitting rooms are deep and roomy, with cypress wood walls and flattering light. A nature scene dances on frosted glass behind the floor-to-ceiling mirrors. At Metropark, customers can watch music videos on LCD monitors while they try on clothes.

Such innovations make trying on clothes more fun, and can also give a retailer a competitive edge. But they are still the exception.

The problem with fitting rooms is twofold. One, is that while retailers have shown themselves willing to invest in design upgrades in new prototypes and new concepts, bringing the changes down to a fleet of existing locations often gets left on the back burner (Macy’s is an exception). Two, fitting rooms require dedicated upkeep. Even the most well-appointed spaces will suffer if they are not properly maintained. Target’s fitting rooms may be utilitarian, but they are almost always clean and free of discarded goods.

It’s often said that women make the decision to purchase clothes in the fitting room. The other side of the coin is that women make the decision not to purchase clothes in the fitting room, as well. And that was the case with me on my recent swimsuit expedition. Tired and cranky, I went home empty-handed. It’s almost enough for a Jersey-shore-loving gal to give up the beach. But just almost.

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