The recent introduction of body scanning technology in Brooks Brothers' flagship store on New York's Madison Avenue realises a vision a long time in the making. Billed as the "ultimate evolution in men's custom clothing," the vertical retailer's digital tailoring method melds 19th century tailoring with 21st century technology. And so far the customers are coming out in droves. Bobbin recently met with Brooks Brothers executives at the flagship store to learn more about its body scanning initiative and the sales infrastructure and supply chain supporting it.

The practice of body scanning is not, by itself, new. Many implementations have come and gone, taking the technology through a difficult infancy during which some companies abandoned their attempts. But time marches on and technology improves - at least it has for Brooks Brothers in this case. The company is betting on the success of its "digital tailor," and so far the firm's efforts are proving right on target. "We went live in early November, and it's been gangbusters since then," notes Joe Dixon, executive vice president of manufacturing, sourcing and alterations for Brooks Brothers and a long-time champion of the body scanning solution.

In fact, in the first three weeks of operation of its body scanner, the flagship store had already scanned several hundred customers. "Since we started, we've scanned anyone from 25 years old to 75 years old. We've had high-tech dot-com types who just want to see the technology and try it, and then we've had guys who are familiar with the custom process who want the suits, and then there are other people who come in and are just intrigued by the technology," says Dixon.

But what about the technology, specifically? Why might Brooks Brothers succeed where others have failed? The scanner itself is provided by The Textile/Clothing Technology Corp. Dixon notes the company looked at a number of other scanners, including some laser scanners. But at the end of the day, the company didn't want to have to post the hazard warnings that necessarily accompany such scanners. "Customers are coming in to be measured, not to get lasered. We wanted a totally safe - safer-than-safe - process, and that's why we did this," says Dixon.

Beyond a firm foundation built on a body scanning solution from one of the industry's most reliable sources, Brooks Brothers has spent years perfecting the processes that ultimately would support body scanning in its retail environment.

The process
The customer steps into the first of two dressing rooms, which is outfitted with magnetically sealed doors to ensure privacy. He then changes into a pair of heather grey biker shorts and steps into the scanner room. Passing though a light beam as he enters the scanner room, the customer activates a voiceover, which welcomes him to the digital tailor and explains how to stand, what to do and the importance of maintaining a natural posture.

"We have constant communication with the customer with a two-way radio," says Michel Holland, digital tailoring project manager. "It is critical that the [sales] associate be able to do this, so they can keep in touch with the customer as they go through the process."

The actual scanning process takes approximately 12 seconds and includes a white light-based scan, which captures more than 200,000 data points, creating a 3-D map of the body.

Before the scan has begun, a sales associate will have entered the customer's name and date of the scan into a software program connected to the scanner and some of Brooks Brothers' other systems. "It is critical that the right customer is matched with the right scan, so the interface unit is set up before the customer enters the room," notes Dixon.

The scanner takes precise body measurements, but it doesn't know how the customer likes to wear his clothes, ie: loose or tight. To compensate for individual taste, Dixon notes that the sales associate can make notes in the program making adjustments for personal preference.

Once the scan is complete, the customer has the daunting task of choosing what exactly he wants and how he wants it to look. Customers can choose from more than 150 fabrics for sport coats, trousers, suits and shirts. Though prices vary depending on fabrics and styles, custom shirts begin at $90, trousers at $200, sport coats at $500 and suits at $700. The latter is only $100 more than an off-the-rack version, notes Holland.

But the customer isn't relegated to a swatch book. The digital tailoring department comes with its own library of sorts. This is an area of the store where clothes with all of the available make details, made of most of the fabrics, are hung as examples. "We want this area to be an area where people can browse. So if someone asks - 'What is a button two-show six?' - we have an example. Or if someone says - 'What is pick stitching?' or 'What is a two-button luxury cuff?' - we can pull it out and show them," says Dixon.

The body scanning software program also maintains images of all garment styles and makes for reference.

"Some guys come in here and know exactly what they want and have a great time designing their product. There are others who just come in and say - 'I want a suit, I want it to fit me great, and I want it to be navy. Now don't bother me with details' - which is fine because the program just defaults to our standard [style]," says Dixon.

The program
The software program that facilitates the body scanning process was custom designed with traditional Brooks Brothers' fashions in mind. Dixon explains that the program, which integrates the measurements into the order, was the company's biggest investment related to its body scanning launch. "We've designed this to be totally flexible. If you want to spend a lot of time, great; if you want to be in and out, great," he notes.

The program runs on computers in the store, which feed information to a database on a corporate server. This information is then transferred via the Internet to the company's intranet. If and when scanners are installed in other stores, they will feed information to the same database.

All 85 of Brooks Brothers' retail stores have the program installed on their in-store systems. "We developed this [program] to go along with the body scanning, but we also use it for [capturing] manual measurements, so we pretty much web-enabled the entire custom division at Brooks Brothers," notes Holland.

In addition, the program was designed to be modular so that the entire ordering process could be done in reverse. "You can pick your fabrics and then get measured. When [the scanner] gets busy, you need to be able to do this first. We don't want guys being scanned without ordering. It's important that they invest a bit of time, that they're serious," says Dixon.

Holland notes that customers are surprisingly quick about getting through the scanning process. The company anticipated a bottleneck in the changing rooms, but that hasn't been the case at all. The bottleneck has come with the selling and how quickly a customer can choose the fabrics and styles. "They're spending a reasonable amount of money, they want face time, and they want to be sure that what they're doing is good. That's perhaps the difference in some of the mass custom appeal,"  Dixon concurs.

The sale
Once a customer has been scanned and his name entered into Brooks Brothers' system, his measurements can be called up immediately at any time. Customers who want to reorder can simply go into the program and begin choosing fabrics and model details. They need not be scanned again.

Whether it's a first-time order or a reorder, the customer can view the style on-screen using the software program and confirm it is what he wants, from the stitching to the cut details to monogramming, etc.

Once the model details are entered and confirmed, the customer can view his measurements. "It's a psychological look at customer expectations," says Holland. "For example, if you've always worn a 15½ 33 shirt, but you're so used to having something that's a lot larger than that, we'll look at that and make adjustments to the measurements."

He notes that this aspect of the custom service has been one of the most difficult to develop because discerning a customer's expectations is nebulous at best. "You'll never really know. Does he like to wear things slim or loose or how? And it's something that's difficult to communicate physically," says Holland.

Once all style, make and fit details have been chosen and the order placed, the program immediately generates an order confirmation, which displays a breakdown of all the screens previously viewed. For instance, all specification and model details are given. If it is acceptable, the sales associate confirms the order by sending it to Brooks Brothers' manufacturing facility in North Carolina, the same facility that makes custom garments for the firm based on traditionally collected measurements.

"In theory, if it's 9:30 am, the shirt might be cut by noon. It's that quick," notes Holland. Turn-around time from the time an order is placed until the customer receives his garment is approximately 10 business days for shirts and 15 business days for suits.

Brooks Brothers protectively guards each customer's data, sharing it with no one. "We were talking early on about partnering with someone else, but we've done it on our own," notes Dixon. "It's our own database. We don't have to share with anybody, no one is going to see it, no one is going to use it."

The future
The future of body scanning remains slightly clouded for Brooks Brothers with the firm's recent acquisition by Retail Brand Alliance Inc, but Dixon says he is optimistic. Retail Brand Alliance owns the Casual Corner Group, which includes Petite Sophisticate and August Max Woman, major specialty store chains marketing to difficult-to-fit women. "I think they'll be excited about it," Dixon notes. "I think there's a synergy there across their brand."

In terms of body scanning installations spreading to other stores within the Brooks Brothers chain, Dixon says: "We're looking at the expansion. But we need to wait to get the new owners on board to see what this can do."

Already planning for the future, Dixon and Holland have a wish list of action items in place. "We want to get to the point where if you ordered a shirt by 10 o'clock, it could be here the next day," says Holland.

Another wish is further web integration. The program was designed with the prospect of web-based ordering in mind. "It's obviously a short step to what we want to do next with the web," notes Holland.

Once the program becomes web-enabled, it will greatly expand Brooks Brothers' global market reach, notes Dixon. "At some point, I want the guy in Finland who came in here and got measured to be able to go home and order it over the Internet. Who knows? Maybe I've got a guy making for me under license in Italy or even in Finland. Suddenly you've got the global penetration without any infrastructure costs," he says.

The market is ready and waiting. As Holland observes: "It happens every day - somebody comes in from Switzerland or Finland or Japan, and they want to be scanned and then ask about ordering from home. So the global market is definitely there for us."

But for now, Brooks Brothers is pacing itself, ironing out the kinks of its latest innovation. First and foremost, the firm is focusing on training its sales personnel on the software program. Their comfort with the system is critical to the success of the project and to increasing awareness about the technology.

Summing up the situation, Dixon concludes: "We know fabrics, we know how to make a great product, and now we've introduced the high-tech, and it's energising us."

By Tracy Haisley, assistant editor of Bobbin.