Sal Emma is not a petite man. "I'm broad-shouldered and slightly overweight," says Mr. Emma, a copywriter for an ad agency.
So when Emma went to the Lands' End website to construct a model of himself to try on clothes - virtually - he didn't expect the computer to generate a particularly svelte figure.
But the three-dimensional girth he saw on his computer screen seemed a bit of a stretch.
"From the side I had a huge gut. And I said to my wife, 'Now come on, I know I'm overweight, but is it that bad?' She said 'no.' "
Nevertheless, Emma's effort to try on a turtleneck using his virtual model (which he named Salbot) yielded a perfect fit. "They recommended size and colors and contrast," says Emma. "Technically it worked pretty well."
Emma's experience is likely to become familiar to millions of Americans this year, as apparel companies introduce the next generation of virtual models on the Internet. Along with new bids to actually scan customers at stores or malls and enter their propor-
tions in a database, they represent one of the most advanced efforts by retailers to replicate the bricks-and-mortar shopping experience online.
Customers create their models by providing basic information: hair color, height, weight, waist size. The result is a three-inch computer graphic that, in most cases, approximates the shape of its human counterpart.
Once complete, the avatar can model the retailer's clothing stock: blouses, pants, skirts, even underwear. Customers, needing only a computer mouse, can click on an item and drag it onto the model. Some sites even offer suggestions for a handbag to match, say, a pair of pumps.
Many model services also guarantee a perfect fit. With detailed customer measurements, the website's search engine (something of a virtual clerk) scours the store's stock for a garment of the same size.
Combined, some experts suggest, these services could do much to phase out the real-world dressing room. They are also a boon for retailers. In an industry where more than 20 percent of sales are returned due to sizing errors, merchants are seeking ways to trim doubt and hassle from the shopping experience.
"Retailers are no longer deploying the virtual models to see if they attract customers," says Cathy Hotka, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation in Washington. "They know that [customers] create them, use them, and like them."
JCPenney's is a pioneer in virtual modeling. The Plano, Texas-based retailer launched its just4me Internet service about two years ago. So far, just4me has touched a chord with Penney's customer base: middle-income women.
The site caters to shoppers with low tolerance for long lines, pushy sales people, and the often fruitless search for small and large sizes, says Gail Jackson, Penney's business manager.
These women "might otherwise be intimated to try on something like a bathing suit in a dressing room," says Ms. Jackson. "Especially next [door] to someone who's a size 6."
But the virtual model makes the process discreet - a feature that has won over customers. More than 1 million women have already created models. Even more telling: After one year, the percentage of visitors to Penney's site who made a purchase surged 16 percent. Boutiques San Francisco, Diesel Jeans, Lands' End, and Macy's are other early adopters of MyVirtualModel (the models' softwaremaker).
Yet most first-generation services are rudimentary. Models are primarily for women, occasionally inaccurate, and don't locate what's in stock.
But the latest services perform multiple tasks. Enfashion, a virtual-model provider in Redwood, Calif., asks users for as many as 20 body measurements to fine tune the avatar. The software company's technology duplicates a garment's hang and texture. Color coding points out tight areas (red) and loose spots (blue). Once complete, the customer receives an ID, which allows them to shop at any website using the Enfashion model.
The possibilities are intriguing. Imagine using one model for every apparel retailer in the US. Or buying perfect-fitting clothes as a present for relatives by accessing their user IDs. (Three clothing retailers plan to launch the Enfashion software this spring.)
Another technology, now in use by Lands' End, gathers 200,000 data points from a would-be customer's body as he or she is bombarded with light in a scanning booth. The measurements are used to compile what the company says is a far more precise model of the person than one created from data that shoppers enter. It can then be accessed online. Fifty "Image Twin" booths are expected in malls across the country this spring.
"Right now the Web-shopping experience is extremely dry. We don't use the medium to its best advantage," says Enfashion CEO Sheree Waterson. "
But there's a strong incentive to get it right. According to consulting firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers, 81 percent of online shoppers say they don't make clothing purchases because they can't try anything on.
Virtual models aren't without flaws. Many models, like Mr. Emma's, aren't very true to life. And they won't be until more customers upgrade their Internet access. Most models are made to accommodate the slowest dial-up modems, limiting what they can do and present.
"Most of our customers are not yet willing to put their clothes on virtual models until the technology improves," says Jeffrey Roth, president of EZ-Size, an Internet-based service that matches retailers' stock with customer measurements. "And some are adamant they never will."
Others argue no technology can find the perfect fit because measurements are no substitute for trying on clothes in person.
Jennifer Gill built a Lands' End model in December. The 22-year-old Floridian needed a winter coat after moving to New York. But she says the coat she got in the mail didn't fit. "The coat looked nice on the model, but was entirely too big on me," says Ms. Gill. "I think people just carry their weight differently and [retailers] can't really measure that."
Gill's experience points out the limitations of replicating an in-store experience online. Expectations that e-commerce would trump traditional shopping have dimmed. Many retailers are now resigned to serving customers in multiple channels - online, in person, and through mailed catalogs.
Virtual models will likely be of most use to those who live far from stores. Some experts tout the online service as an echo of the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs that delivered urban fashions to rural customers at the turn of the last century.
But urbanites like Gill now opt for the real thing. Midtown Manhattan lies just outside her front door. "We have all kinds of amazing shopping just down the street," says Gill. "I love to shop [and] wouldn't want to miss it."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor