How Rebecca Minkoff uses tech to make her fashion stores stand out

The designer is trying to stay ahead with features like smart mirrors and self-checkout.

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    Nike and Adidas aren't the only lifestyle brands designing their retail spaces with technology in mind. Others such as Rebecca Minkoff, a fashion label based out of New York City, are taking similar steps by implementing things like smart mirrors and, most recently, self-checkout at its boutiques. Although the latter feature is far less advanced than what Amazon's Go grocery stores will offer, it's yet another example of how the brick-and-mortar landscape is changing in several industries.

    Gallery: Inside Rebecca Minkoff's tech-forward store | 8 Photos

    Rebecca Minkoff CEO Uri Minkoff says it's not only about making the experience feel more futuristic for shoppers, but also removing some of the human interaction that commonly takes place at physical locations. The latter, he says, stems from the idea of "the Pretty Woman moment," where some customers would prefer not to be judged for their purchases. To see this in practice, I took a tour of Rebecca Minkoff's flagship store in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood, which also happens to be home to Nike's new massive tech-infused space and Google's NYC pop-up shop. In other words, this is the place to be if you're looking to spend a lot of cash.

    Aside from chic women's clothing and accessories, the first thing I noticed when I visited the Rebecca Minkoff store was a large (5 x 12 feet) digital wall that lets you order a drink or request help from an employee. Personally, I don't find it that hard to look around the store for assistance, but the touchscreen does let you enter your information and get a text message when someone's on their way to you. I can see how that might be more appealing than wandering aimlessly, or having to deal with an associate asking how they can help every time you make even accidental eye contact.

    Rebecca and Uri Minkoff.

    Back when the store opened in 2014, Rebecca Minkoff partnered with eBay to install connected mirrors in fitting rooms. Customers can use these interactive displays to browse and order different styles or sizes. Plus you can use it to get a staff member to bring you a different size if the one you picked out is too big -- quite handy when you're semi-naked in the dressing room. I didn't get the full effect, since Rebecca isn't a menswear designer, but I can imagine it would be useful to have something similar at stores I do shop at. It would save me both energy and time, and no one can say no to that.

    The feature that intrigued me the most, by far, was self-checkout, though I would later find out it wasn't what I expected. The system, developed in part by a startup named QueueHop, uses radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips and iPads to give shoppers a different way to pay for items in the store. But rather than offering a "Just Walk Out Shopping" experience like Amazon Go, Rebecca Minkoff's version of self-checkout is more akin to what you see at conventional grocery and big-box stores.

    That said, you do need to interact with an employee if you want to get a shopping bag or receipt; otherwise you can get through it all on on your own in less than five minutes. If you're wondering why you can't just grab a bag yourself, apparently Minkoff thinks it's more aesthetically pleasing this way.

    Rebecca Minkoff's self-checkout system.

    Based on my demo, it's obvious that the system is a work in progress. Once you've placed the items on an RFID-powered table, it sends product details to the iPad used to check out, then you enter info such as your email address and swipe your credit card to pay. It's seamless up until that point. The problem is, before you can walk away from the self-checkout station, you have to manually take the security tags off of the stuff you've purchased, be it a purse, dress or pair of sunglasses.

    After inserting each tag into a small machine, it took the store associate who gave me the demo a few tries before she was able to fully remove them. And she's a trained professional. Obviously the company doesn't want to take a chance on someone walking out with a $500 handbag or any other item. If someone does try to do that, the RFID tags will set off a sound that alerts associates as soon the person attempts to step out the door. It'll be interesting to see if Rebecca Minkoff can find a way to fix that tedious step and, at the same time, keep its security measures in place.

    Right now, self-checkout is available only at Rebecca Minkoff's flagship location, in NYC, but the service is expected to roll out to Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco in the near future. I have a feeling customers who try it won't be too impressed, at least not if they walk in thinking it's going to be another Amazon Go. Honestly, I was expecting something more in line with what the online retail giant teased a couple of weeks ago, especially because both firms made their respective announcement on the same day. Unfortunately, that's not the case.

    Amazon's vision requires zero interaction with other humans, relying heavily on sensors and deep machine learning to create a true self-checkout experience for shoppers. Basically, all you need is an app and your grocery bags, and the Go store does the rest (i.e. make sure you paid for everything you took). If you want to imagine what the future of retail will look like, this is a solid example. That's not to say Rebecca Minkoff's system isn't convenient; it's just not as smart as what Amazon created. "They [Amazon] probably had a much bigger budget than we did," says Minkoff, half-joking.

    The digital wall and smart mirrors, on the other hand, are a little gimmicky, but not to the point that you completely question their purpose. It helps that they're not obtrusive and, with the latter, it is helpful to be able to browse a lookbook and remotely order clothes from inside the fitting room. According to Minkoff, customers love these features, although he wasn't clear on whether they lead to increased sales or more foot traffic.

    Rebecca Minkoff's approach to technology isn't revolutionary, but its willingness to explore it is notable when you consider how slow the fashion world has been to embrace it. Things are changing fast, though, leading designers and brands to look to tech to make their products more innovative. While not perfect, maybe the ideas from Rebecca Minkoff will inspire others to use them as a building block to change the retail landscape as we know it.

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