Online shoppers using virtual selves for right fit

Models: Trying clothes on images that mirror users' body types is sparking a trend among retail outlets.

May 02, 2002|By Christina Gostomski | Christina Gostomski,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

With her cropped gray hair, carefree stance and very normal-looking body, MaryannAnt looks like a real human being.

But she's not.

In reality, she's a virtual model, a computer composite of a person. The real person she's based on is Mary Ann Anthony of Fogelsville, Pa. Granted, the real Anthony's hair is a little longer and grayer, her face and body a little more mature.

"My husband would love it if I looked like that," Anthony exclaimed when she first saw her virtual model sporting youthful-looking skin in a swimsuit.

But her proportions are pretty close.

"That's me," Anthony says, grinning. "That's about how I'm built."

My Virtual Model Inc., based in Montreal (www.virtual model.com), developed the technology to create models online and custom fits the program to clients' Web sites. In the past two years, the company has seen an explosion in growth, according to company spokesman Mark Lowe.

In August 2001, clothing retailers Lands' End and Lane Bryant were My Virtual Model's only two clients. Today the company has 12 clients, including Nutri/System, which uses the technology to show dieters how they might look when they lose weight.

Here's how it works in the clothing business: Online shoppers create virtual models at one of the participating Web sites, then use that model to "try on" clothing before buying it. The idea is that customers can get an idea of what they'll look like in apparel without ever leaving their home.

On some sites, such as Lands' End, customers can purchase the item online; on other sites, such as Lane Bryant, customers can print out information about their outfit, then take that to the store. Once a model is created, it can be used at any of the sites.

Creating a model takes just a few minutes. You choose a name and password, then answer a series of questions about your height, weight and build. Women choose between body shapes of triangular, inverted triangular and hourglass, and choose a chest size.

Men choose between shoulder sizes and two body shapes.

Then you select your facial features, complexion, hairstyle and color. In a few minutes, your virtual self - normally dressed in underwear - appears.

It's a little like playing paper dolls - except that you're dressing someone who looks like yourself and you're doing it all with the click of a mouse.

However, the system isn't exact. For example, if a woman selects an inverted triangle for her body shape, the model will have more weight from the waist down. But the weight will be evenly distributed throughout the model's bottom half and can't be adjusted if the real life woman has weight concentrated more in a specific area such as her calves or thighs.

For men, there are only two builds, one with six-pack abs and one with a flabby stomach and butt.

Still, the software does help customers visualize what they'll look like in certain clothing.

"It's one of the most-used tools on our Web site," says Andrea Stephenson, spokeswoman for Lands' End, which started using virtual models in 1998.

Originally, "the model was a little more cartoony, the rendering was not as sharp," Stephenson says.

At first, Lands' End used virtual models for a handful of its most popular women's clothing such as chinos, drifter sweaters and jeans. My Virtual Model has updated its software twice since then, making the models more realistic looking, offering more complexion choices and adding a male model.

Today, approximately 500 items at www.LandsEnd.com can be "tried on" virtual models and Stephenson says the technology is paying off.

About 10 percent of Lands' End Web site visitors use virtual models and the number of sales among those who use models is 26 percent higher than those who don't, Stephenson says.

Additionally, those who use models spend 13 percent more than those who don't.

Anthony, who frequently shops online, says the program is an easy way to pick out clothes.

"It's a really neat idea," says Anthony, who recently purchased an orange voile shirt at Lane Bryant after trying it on her model.

At www.LaneBryant.com, more than 300,000 virtual models have been created in less than two years, according to Becky Rundels, the company's brand development manager.

Although customers can't purchase Lane Bryant clothing online, about 1,700 people try clothing on their models every day, Rundels says.

"Women have less and less time these days and this helps," Rundels says. "You can try on 100 outfits in minutes, which you could never do in person."

In addition to the online models, My Virtual Model Inc. offers technology on some sites that enables Web users to determine what size they wear based on measurements such as inseam, bust, waist and hip size.

"Our goal is to create models that people can trot around and shop with at any destination," Lowe says. "It's a lot like the real human experience."

Christina Gostomski is a reporter for The Morning Call, a Tribune Publishing Co. newspaper.

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