When Szeki Chan opened up Szeki, an apparel boutique in New York City’s Lower East Side, she fretted over how many people frequented the dressing room, yet never made it to the register.
“I thought, ‘Wow, having a storefront is going down,’ ” said the 27-year-old business owner. “It sucks when people take your service for granted, but you have to work your sales and be engaging.”
It’s a concern for many boutiques, now constantly challenged by fierce online competition and digital price comparison accessibility. In Australia, retailers are fighting back with a unique twist: try-on fees, which are refunded to the customer upon purchase, reports the Sydney Morning Herald. Merchants following the new trend hope to limit the frequency of customers feeling out the goods in person, then heading to the Internet to ferret out a better price.
Adding to the pressure on retailers, new fashion apps are reducing the need for salespeople, especially among young shoppers. Popular apps like Fashism provide instant feedback: Members upload a picture of a possible purchase, then the community votes on whether they “love it” or “hate it.” You’re no longer alone in making style decisions in the dressing room.
“The traditional shopping experience is under attack from all sides, and retailers are certainly feeling it,” said Clare Press, a Sydney-based women’s wear label designer. But she doesn’t put much confidence in the fee trend. “But what would you do, have a coin slot in the door? And who's going to fork out for the privilege of trying on a skirt?”
Today’s fashionistas have millions of way to shop, so how does one profit from offering a dressing room, which takes up valuable real estate?“The system is broken; consumers have so many options,” said Marshal Cohen, chief retail industry analyst of The NPD Group. “The pay-to-play concept is very challenging.”
Still, these Australian boutiques are banking on a new shopping strategy — one that elevates the in-store experience, to encourage walk-ins over online shopping. Americans, however, might not be as receptive to such a customer-taxing experience. For one thing, says Cohen, the U.S. is almost the exact opposite model. Brands like Talbots and Lane Bryant actually reward consumers for walking in, including offering coupons and discounts for trying out products. Not to mention, the market is driven toward impulse buys and the social shopping experience ingrained in American culture, be it “retail therapy” or Sunday shopping with friends. “There are a lot of consumers who admit that if they didn’t shop, they wouldn’t interact with anybody,” said Cohen.
So far, only a few markets carry such fees, including athletic ski shops and bridal stores, which often carry specific items that are specially imported. “These fees are not prevalent,” said Julie Raimondi, editor-in-chief of Brides.com. “However, if a bride wants to try on a dress by designer X, and the store carries designer X, but not that specific dress, the store will order a sample from designer X and have it shipped to the salon... It's expensive.”
But will these fees catch on for the average shopper?
“It’s not gonna happen in Mississippi, where people have enough common sense to look you square in the eye, laugh, and walk out, with their money intact,” consumer Sheila Ryan told TODAY.com. “It would be ridiculous.”
As for the store owners, they don’t seem as enthusiastic either.
“I can’t even imagine — we just try to provide a good shopping experience,” said Chan. “Sometimes we even give lemonade.”