eBay mirror, mirror on the wall -- are you talking to me?

The e-commerce giant's fitting room of the future lands at Nordstrom and Rebecca Minkoff stores.

Donna Tam Staff Writer / News
Donna Tam covers Amazon and other fun stuff for CNET News. She is a San Francisco native who enjoys feasting, merrymaking, checking her Gmail and reading her Kindle.
Donna Tam
5 min read

eBay is testing its digital fitting rooms in some Nordstrom stores in hopes of helping customers shop easier and more frequently. The rooms are outfitted with smart mirrors that let shoppers scan clothing, select different sizes and colors or call for assistance with a touch of a button. eBay

Healey Cypher didn't expect the reaction to the mirror he helped create.

Head of retail innovation at eBay, Cypher led the team perfecting a new type of mirror that blends a computer with a reflective surface. The combination will automatically log the clothes you've brought into the fitting room, suggest accessories for the outfit you've tried on, help you call for assistance and change the lighting in your room.

There was just one problem, according to two women who worked at retailer Rebecca Minkoff.

"They said they were 'fat mirrors,'" said Cypher. "One said, 'My thigh gap is gone.' I will never forget it."

So Healy went back to the drawing board to design the perfect touchscreen mirror -- one that wouldn't make you look fat. He succeeded and eBay has begun testing the mirrors in a limited number of stores, including Rebecca Minkoff and Nordstrom. eBay is hoping others will follow.

Yes, eBay. Among the first online-only shopping sites, eBay now sees brick-and-mortar retailers as an important source of revenue. It makes surprising sense: About 90 percent of all retail sales still occur in stores, according to a July report on shoppers' preferences issued by management consulting company AT Kearney. Even more intriguing, 95 percent of all sales are captured by stores with a physical presence.

"Shoppers actually find physical stores appealing," the consultancy said in a statement explaining the results of its study. "Stores provide consumers with a sensory experience that allows them to touch and feel products, immerse in brand experiences, and engage with sales associates who provide tips and reaffirm shopper enthusiasm for their new purchases."

What's more, retailers are expected to spend $99.6 billion this year on technologies that encourage more shopping, engage more customers and draw more shoppers to their physical and online stores, according to IDC Research. That figure is forecast to grow to $111.8 billion by 2018.

Incorporating technology into stores has not traditionally been easy, but the growing popularity of smartphones has changed that, IDC Analyst Leslie Hand said.

"A digital experience before [stores] started engaging in mobile -- it was a kiosk, and that was a kiosk that went down half the time," she said. "Mobile has revolutionized retail."

The concept of digital mirrors has been around since as early as 2006, Hand said. Back then they were called "magic mirrors" and could do many of the things eBay's mirrors can, she said.

Network-gear maker Cisco Systems, for example, developed the StyleMe Mirror that lets store customers capture images of what they look like and then share those with family and friends, create digital ensembles and make purchases.

German apparel maker Adidas rolled out its version of a smart mirror more than two years ago in its NEO stores. Upscale department store Bloomingdale's installed mirrors with adjustable lighting and iPads in some of its dressing rooms last year. Other retailers have also tried, none has rolled them out to their entire chain of stores.

But eBay could have an advantage, Hand said. The company can link its mirrors to its e-commerce platform, giving retailers the ability to personalize a shopping experience with recommendations based on past purchases and tastes. Additionally, the company's mirrors are more responsive to touch, which means they actually work as intended.

"If the tech doesn't work the way it's supposed to, we're not going to use it," Hand said.

Watch this: Need a new size? Just tap the mirror

Still, mirrors might not be for everyone. A service-centric store like Nordstrom might actually find that it turns off customers who rely on associates to help them, said Hand. In contrast Macy's, which employs fewer associates per shopper, could use the mirrors to augment customer service. And of course, there's also the issue of how customers react to the idea of a digitized dressing room. Some may find it too foreign or flat-out intrusive.

eBay made that concern a top priority, said Steve Yankovich, eBay's vice president of innovation and new ventures. In addition to finding the right materials for the mirror, eBay cut out features that, while flashy, might send the wrong message.

One example? A "selfie cam" for the mirror, which eBay expected shoppers to use while trying on clothes, and then send images to friends for their opinions. While it initially seemed like a logical feature, the team realized it could be misconstrued as creepy.

eBay now focuses on addressing customers' basic needs.

At the Rebecca Minkoff stores in San Francisco, the mirrors are the first thing shoppers see. Affixed to the shop's main wall, they display transparent videos of models walking down a runway.

Shoppers can browse the brand's look-books or see curated feeds of consumer Instagram posts -- each picked to highlight how the clothes, handbags and shoes look on other customers. You can enter your phone number to reserve a room. A prompt will offer you a beverage while you wait, which an associate will bring to you. You'll receive a text when your room is available.

Inside the dressing room, radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags attached to the clothing tell the mirror what clothes you have in your hand. You can scroll through different color and size options and choose among indoor, outdoor and nightlife lighting for a better idea of how an outfit might look outside the store.

Need human assistance? A button on the mirror summons a sales associate.

Customers willing to share their personal information can save the items for a later purchase, either online or in the store. Otherwise, the stores get valuable anonymous data that will help them with inventory.

"It's the best parts of online and offline," said Uri Minkoff, CEO of Rebecca Minkoff.

eBay will test out new technologies at the San Francisco Rebecca Minkoff store every three months. Some of those technologies will likely include infrared cameras for gathering information on foot traffic.

Minkoff said he eventually wants shopping to become a combination of convenience and entertainment.

"Even as the world has swung from brick and mortar to an offline experience, there are still opportunities," Minkoff said. "People still want to leave the house."