Prada Gets Personal

The Milan designer is harnessing the Net to boost customer service at its new U.S.flagship store

Imagine an omniscient salesperson who greets you by name as you enter a store and who knows everything from the measure of your waist to your allergy to wool. As you admire a pair of shoes, she can--without ever leaving your side--assure you that they're available in size 8, point out how well they would go with the skirt you bought two weeks ago, and display a video of supermodel Jacquetta Wheeler wearing the same sling-back heels on a Paris runway.

Just how far off is this vision of shopping's superpersonalized future? At Prada, it's just weeks away. While other top fashion houses have built splashy Web sites showing off their skirts, shoes, and bags, Prada has been conspicuously absent online. But this spring, the Milan fashion house plans to harness the Net to boost customer service at its flagship U.S. store. The Manhattan boutique, the brainchild of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, already has gotten accolades for its design: Walls of glass carry sunlight deep into the interior, stadium-style bleachers display shoes, and the floor dips in a 30-foot wooden "wave" that doubles as a stage.

But Prada wants to do far more than make an architectural splash. Beneath the marble, zebrawood, and exposed brick lies technology crafted to pamper the Prada shopper. It starts with the "Staff Device," a handheld computer that is shaped like a flattened flashlight and is the sales associate's gateway to gobs of information stored on the Web. The machine can scan tags on a dress or blouse so the salesperson can wow shoppers with any detail they might want--what's in stock, different fabrics, and that oh-so-perfect accessory. The Staff Device also controls video monitors located throughout the store, where salespeople can call up original designer sketches of the garment or even play video clips of runway shows. The system lets Prada "communicate the richness of the ideas that make our products contemporary and interesting," says Co-Chief Executive Miuccia Prada.

Prada keeps that communication going in the dressing room. Each of the seven rooms is outfitted with a "smart closet" that automatically scans garments' tags. When a customer takes out a blouse to try it on, information about the blouse appears on a touch screen so she can do some virtual browsing for, say, a different size or a matching scarf--without leaving the dressing room. "Prada is combining the best of the online world with the best of the real world, and making both better," says analyst Ronni Marshak of Patricia Seybold Group, a Boston customer-service consulting firm.

And that doesn't take into account the "magic mirror." When a customer turns around in the dressing room, a motion-sensitive camera begins filming. Seconds later, an embedded screen behind the mirror lights up, and a customer can see herself twirl like Marilyn Monroe. "It provided such a delightful experience that it grew from an added fun element into a key component," says Heather Martin, senior designer at IDEO London, which planned the store's customer experience.

After bringing the Web to the store, Prada wants to do the reverse--extend the store experience to the Internet. Shoppers in Prada's dressing rooms can save a record of their session with a tap on the screen. Then from home they can visit Prada's Web site and review what they tried on--perhaps getting an opinion from a friend or spouse who wasn't in the store at the time. From there, a quick click on the customer's page sends a note to the store associate saying--Prada hopes--that she'll buy the item.

Prada's vision flies in the face of conventional wisdom about the Web. Most industries have turned to Net-based customer service to save money by cutting human beings out of the equation. At Prada, the technology--though dazzling--was never meant to come between the customer and staff. The company prides itself on giving its clients the royal treatment as they spend hours trying on dresses or suits costing thousands of dollars. That kind of attentiveness helped privately held Prada log sales of $1.5 billion last year, more than double its revenues in 1998. But facing a rising tide of debt and the potential that customers might rein in spending as the economy soured, Prada figured the time was right for a customer-service makeover. And merging the efficiency of the Web with Prada's signature high-touch personal relationships filled the bill.

As magical as it sounds, there's no guarantee that Prada's bold Web experiment will pay off. Prada will have to sell a lot of dresses, shoes, and shawls to cover the $20 million it has spent on the store's technology. "The whole store is a bit of a laboratory," says Bruce Eckfeldt, program manager at New York-based IconNicholson, the software developer for the project.

Still, as tweaks get made in New York, grand visions for the future grow. Prada plans to open a second location, in Los Angeles, with the same technology, followed by stores in San Francisco and Tokyo. And the long-term vision is to use the best of the system in each of Prada's 150 boutiques worldwide. By that time, it should be clearer whether a merger between the velvet touch of Prada's service and the cold logic of the Internet has paid off for the fashion house. Either way, Prada customers are likely to enjoy the experiment.

By Jeanette Brown

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