Why shop trial rooms can be a potent research base to understand consumer behaviour

Among the many unheard conversations in any retail environment are those that happen before the decision to buy a garment is made. The trial room inside a store is that nebulous space — bursting with intimate secrets all bundled up as expressed and suppressed wishes,uncertainties,which garment will please whom,private notions of body image and the lurking ghost of the “budget” that must finally rationalise all these aspects to convert a tried piece into a purchase.

Delhi-based Sumati Nagrath,a media researcher with an interest in retail and consumption,stumbled upon the idea of “studying the trial room” as an important indicator of consumption behaviour. Nagrath had published a paper 10 years ago analysing the India Fashion Week of 2002,two years after fashion weeks in India had become official and regular. She also researched the new breed of business-savvy designers pushing the industry towards cohesive growth. She is one of the few who nurtures a wish to do academic research on Indian fashion.

As a new mother and someone who has always been a tall and big-boned lady,she says she has been dealing with weight issues. She would often find her way to trial rooms inside malls and sometimes sit and stew while family and friends could try clothes. “Stores like Mango and Zara don’t allow you to hang around if you are not buying clothes and this would fuel my curiosity,” she says. During one such visit,she overheard a lady sharing her tentativeness with a friend to ask if the dress she had tried would “appeal to her husband’s boss”. Apparently,the husband had sanctioned a shopping budget for a party where he had to impress the boss. Investing in the wife’s dress was part of his career strategy. The wife was trying hard to keep pace with her husband’s ambitions and second-guess what the boss would like. In another instance,Nagrath says she was floored by a lady in a dress,in her fifties,who barged into the trail room with a pair of trousers and chirpily announced to everyone queuing up that she wasn’t there to distress the “girls”. She didn’t even want a room; all she wanted was to pull up her chosen trousers beneath her dress and a mirror to look at.

These were eye-opening conversations,says Nagrath. They lent her a research idea that could lead to many notions of why we buy what we do,how self-image reflects in trial rooms and who or what prompts you to make the final purchase. “The trial room gives you an impression of a false sense of privacy,otherwise it is a very public space because of its fluid walls. It reveals insecurities or presumptions like few places do,” she says.

Nagrath is particularly intrigued by lingerie trial rooms in stores like Marks & Spencer,where experts measure you before advising you on the choice and size of undergarments,provoking a potent mix of conversational intimacy. “Studying lingerie showrooms and their trial rooms will also expand my exploration to the training given to retail staff which is changing our shopping experience in India. Unisex trial rooms,which are few and far between in India,are something I want to explore,” she says.

Her research project,a work-in-progress,will take Nagrath to different cities and to trial rooms of stores consciously chosen to map the different slices of the vast retail market of India. She wants to explore Big Bazaar,FabIndia among others and their branches so that the variable is not completely flexible. Nagrath will convert the study into an ethical research practice for which she will collaborate with stores,so that she can follow her subjects more honestly. “I clearly don’t want to caricaturise the conversations,” she says.

The trial room itself,an empty space even without its secret conversations,is becoming an enticing new area to wonder in. Some trial rooms in large,multi-designer fashion stores provide you with a couch to lounge on and magazines to flip through; a variety of mirrors,that say a lot about who has designed the public-private space and high heels and flat shoes to try your clothes with. If it’s a stylised,luxury environment,you can even order black coffee (if not champagne) while you are trying on clothes.

Numerous fashion and retail stores are investing in design and the seductive aura of the trial room as part of merchandising strategies. For instance,at Ritika Tikoo’s Either Or store in Pune,the trial room looks like a garage on which a wooden shutter has been pulled down. Inside,it’s a play of kitschy colours,quirky mirrors and a shot of Tikoo’s bohemian personality.

It would be interesting to see what Nagrath finds out when she goes in and out of the revolving doors between a person’s own sense of self,society,age and trendiness.