L.L. Bean’s Testing Smart Clothes That Dish on Customer Usage Habits
The apparel brand's collaboration with smart textile maker Loomia may yield a treasure trove of valuable usage data.
L.L. Bean is testing a new approach to wearable technology: Smart clothes that can report back to the company about how, when and how often the customer uses the product.
The project is born of a partnership with smart textiles company Loomia, which created a smart tiny hardware unit resembling a standard sizing or sew-in garment tag. L.L. Bean plans to create an opt-in program that seeds Tile-equipped apparel to a limited test group of customers.
“In the past, we’ve been more cautious,” said Chad Leeder, innovation specialist at L.L. Bean. He describes the company as a long-established brand with a clientele that may skew older than some other fashion labels. But “we’re at the point of experimentation now, because we realize that to stay competitive with the Amazons of the world, and the other brands that are really known for their customer service, we have to maintain a whole new level of customer service.”
Leeder, who was instrumental to the Loomia partnership, realized that having real-world usage patterns for items like jackets or boots — slated to be the first test items — would be invaluable. It would allow the company to improve its offerings, based on customer preferences. With Tile, L.L. Bean can see how often an item is worn before it’s retired, when the peak times are and how often a customer wears the garment before seeking a replacement, signaling longevity or life cycle of those particular products.
He’s also quick to point out that the clothing brand’s lifetime guarantee won’t be compromised by the participant’s usage. But the insights can help the company understand how their shirts, jackets and more hold up in the real world and how people engage these products.
For now, details — such as the size of the test or the program’s length of time — haven’t been hammered out. But Leeder believes the initial participant pool, drawn from the brand’s most avid customers, could be anywhere from a small handful to dozens of subjects.
In an age of privacy concerns over personal data, smart clothes that transmit customer usage patterns could trigger concerns. But Loomia’s Tile mitigates the risk by requiring users to periodically sync their data to their phones, so it can be uploaded. In the future, Loomia may consider wireless transfers. But at least for now, the process depends on user participation, which puts more control in the test subjects’ hands.
“The user chooses to share the data by scanning the tag,” said Janett Liriano, ceo of Loomia. “The data shared is as much or as little as the user wants — the product, time of use, length of use. But the garment does not share location, unless the user wants.”
The tech company’s overall approach bypasses several problems facing other wearables: Tile manages to banish energy concerns by using piezoelectric technology, which draws power from users’ physical activities. This attention to kinetics means that testers won’t have to fuss with batteries. The tiny Tile also comes with a processor, sensors and built-in storage — so users won’t have to sync the data every day.
To store and secure the data, Loomia relies on blockchain technology via Ethereum, an open software platform that lets developers create and deploy decentralized applications. In other words, instead of warehousing data in one place, pieces are distributed across the Ethereum environment, ready to be reassembled into a cohesive whole whenever necessary. Many experts consider this a safer way to store data, and for Loomia, it means the company doesn’t have to dive into the complex world of data security and storage.
Loomia would prefer to do what it’s best at — putting smarts into textiles. It has a track record of innovating with responsive garments, having created wearable circuitry that can provide heat or even change color. The company has collaborated with Zac Posen, as well as Google, and it most recently made a splash at New York Fashion Week last September with its color-morphing looks for Julianna Bass. Now Loomia has attracted the likes of Carole Kerner — former president of Donna Karan Collection and DKNY — as an advisor to the company.
“I am inspired and motivated to work with Loomia, a company that provides innovative technology that can not only lend unique properties to specific products, but that also carries data that can inform a brand,” said Kerner. “Through the years, I’ve seen fashion’s need for innovation firsthand. The integration of a seamless and sophisticated technology such as Loomia’s will help solve a multitude of pain points that have previously been a barrier to this innovation, such as having a deeper understanding of how garments are used once they leave the store, and then using those insights to actually offer consumers better products.”