Manhattan’s changing Nolita neighborhood is packed with independent boutiques and specialty retailers, and Prince Street, its prime retail real estate thoroughfare, is almost unrecognizable compared to how it looked even five years ago. Brands such as Credo, Naadam, Amour Vert, Everlane, line the street, broadcasting on sandwich boards and from windows their claims of clean beauty, sustainable knitwear, biodegradable packaging, radical transparency. Only the tiny shop selling pizza by the slice, which attracts lines around the block, seems to have withstood the changing ethicality and up-to-the-minute strategies associated with modern retail.
Ruti, a ten-year-old womenswear brand by Israeli designer, Ruti Zisser, joined this commercial strip last fall. This brand’s major innovation is arguably its use of facial recognition technology to deliver to its customers a more personalized shopping experience.
But the technology has made headlines often. Only last month concerns were raised by Congresswoman Alessandra Ocasio-Cortez at a hearing of the House Oversight Committee on the lack of regulation surrounding facial recognition technology and its potential for abuse, particularly when used by powerful organizations. So how exactly does it work in the context of an independent fashion boutique selling elevated separates for the fashionable career woman on the go? FashionUnited speaks to Shanice Brown, store manager of Ruti, who walks us through the experience of capturing a consumer’s likeness and what happens next.
“When customers walk in there are a couple of cameras which snap photos from different angles to identify the individual. But if they casually browse and leave, none of their data is captured. However if somebody tries on a garment, and wants to be a part of our Ruti club, they would sign up by email, give their phone number, maybe date of birth if they wanted.”
Facial recognition improves customer service
This begins the process of building a profile on the customer and encourages the forming of a relationship with the brand. “A report is generated and we match the name of the person who purchases to the photo,” says Brown. “If the customer goes into another Ruti store some weeks later, in California, or Dallas, an icon will pop on screen to let the stylist know the customer bought this pant or this purse, and if they have a loyalty card, or how much they spent, and also offers suggestions of what they might like.”
Brown claims this is the level of attention customers expect from Ruti. There has been no pushback, if anything it provokes curiosity when a customer happens to spot the cameras. But an important characteristic of the brand is Zisser’s background in the high tech world of the San Francisco Bay area, ground zero for tech entrepreneurialism. As a woman rising up in that male dominated environment, who decided to launch a fashion line, it’s perhaps unsurprising she would integrate tech into her business model. The brand’s followers are aware of the founder’s origin story, and since installing the software, Ruti has experienced a 40 percent increase in year-over-year sales
The Ruti customer, Brown says is “aged between 30-70, stylish, comfortable, cool. She is somebody who doesn’t go for the ordinary, who likes a little bit of edge too, who can have a favorite pair of pants, introduces her friends to the brand, and who travels a lot.”
The seamlessness of being able to cater to the needs of someone who might find herself visiting different Ruti stores around the country but who receives a fluid level of service throughout is important to the brand. “Someone who shopped in LA can come in here and, although I wouldn’t address them by their name, I know them in the sense that perhaps they don’t wear black, or they like print, or are a size 2, or prefer a straight leg versus a wide leg. I don’t waste their time, and everything’s fitting perfectly.”
On Prince Street as in every other major retail hub, it would appear that facial recognition is not going away soon. But the days of customers being handed the wrong item or walking out feeling misunderstood or frustrated might just be over.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Update 12/03: The name of the quoted store manager has been corrected.