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When a woman tries on an outfit alongside a more attractive person trying on the same thing, she is less likely to buy the piece, a new study finds.iStock photo

Brianne Garcia does not hate her body.

Even living in image-conscious New York City, and often shopping with a close friend who is 6 foot 1 "and like a size 2," the 24-year-old said she is cool with her curves. But then she stepped into Canadian retailer Aritzia's Manhattan store, tried on a few items – and left feeling bad about herself.

The reason? The fitting rooms did not have individual mirrors, forcing shoppers to look at themselves in a communal mirror. Trying on clothes, already a loaded process for many women, can become more uncomfortable when shoppers are forced to do a self-conscious catwalk strut, sometimes in ill-fitting outfits, before an audience of svelte salespeople and customers.

"I really usually don't feel that way," Ms. Garcia said of the insecurity she experienced in that fitting area. "I see the communal mirror, and there's a woman who's a size 24 [waist]trying on the same shorts … As a woman, you can be okay with your body and have accepted it and all that, but then you're forced to compare yourself."

This is more than the old yarn about the fashion industry's impact on self-esteem: It's a marketing dilemma for every clothing retailer. New research, led by two Canadian academics, suggests that the design of retail change rooms, and its impact on revenue from customers, is often overlooked.

The study, reported in the latestJournal of Consumer Research, outlines experiments meant to judge how comparing yourself to other shoppers affects buying decisions – including when communal fitting-room mirrors put shoppers in direct comparison with others. The experiments found, among other things, that when a woman tried on an outfit alongside a more attractive person trying on the same thing, she was more likely not to buy the piece.

"For a consumer who doesn't feel like a supermodel … you can facilitate them and make them feel better about themselves, or you can put them in a situation where they feel worse," said Darren Dahl, a marketing professor at the University of British Columbia, who co-wrote the study with professors Jennifer Argo from the University of Alberta and Andrea Morales from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Canadian fashion retailer Jacob has direct experience with this. Its stores used to have fitting rooms with a communal mirror; only a handful had an individual mirror inside.

"Over the years, we saw that more and more customers would ask for the changing room that has its own mirror," said Cristelle Basmaji, Jacob's director of communications. The company changed its store design and the majority have mirrors in each stall.

The research by Prof. Dahl and his colleagues found that women left to their own devices were more likely to buy a piece of clothing if they were allowed to consider only how it looked on them, as opposed to comparing it to the way it fit another customer they perceived as more attractive.

Another experiment found that the effect was not the same when a salesperson pointed out a more attractive shopper and said the other woman had just bought the item the subject was trying on. The side-by-side comparison in the communal mirror is what made the difference.

The study follows a legacy of research into retail design and its effect on consumer buying behaviour, from writers such as Paco Underhill in his book, Why We Buy. His theory about the "butt brush," for example, which showed that customers are more likely to move on from considering something on a shelf if they are brushed by someone squeezing by, caused many stores to increase aisle space, Prof. Dahl said. He argues that the same consideration needs to be applied at retail chains that force shoppers in front of a communal mirror.

The research focused on shoppers who are "low in body esteem," but as Ms. Garcia's experience attests, the process of trying on clothes in a certain type of setting is enough to elicit insecurity from even relatively confident and happy women. That can be a blow to the store's marketing efforts.

"More brands should be looking at that," said Hunter Tura, president and chief executive officer of Bruce Mau Design in Toronto, which handles architectural projects, design and marketing work, and who has worked with retail clients. He advocates privacy for shoppers trying on clothes.

He points to British chain Top Shop, which recently opened an outlet in the Bay at Toronto's Yorkdale Shopping Centre. It offers a suite where customers can book an appointment with a personal shopper, creating a mix of privacy and customer support.

The latest research findings do not always apply, of course: Ms. Garcia did buy the shorts she tried on at Aritzia. But every time she looks at them, she is reminded of her negative feelings in the store.

The communal mirror can be a pressure tactic, as well. Forcing customers out of individual change rooms brings them face-to-face with a salesperson, who will praise the fit, encourage them to buy the clothes, and suggest other items to try on.

Much of the design of retails stores focuses on this sales point, known in the industry as "conversion," Mr. Tura explained. That is, converting a shopper's presence in a store into a sale. He believes this aggressive approach is not the most advantageous, either for the buyer or the seller.

"If you take a longer view of conversion, it's not getting someone in the store and selling to them that day, but if you can get someone in the store and sell to them for five years because of the loyalty to that brand, there's more of a return on your investment," he said. "I would encourage brands to take the long view."

Ms. Garcia's experience appears to back him up. She has not returned to the Aritzia store since last summer.

"I'm not interested in going back," she said. "I live right near there and I walk by there all the time. And I've seen some stuff in the window that I'll think, 'Oh that's cute.' But I won't go in there."

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