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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On Mondays, we focus on technology. Today, we're going to talk about online shopping because last year, Americans spent more online on clothes than computers. For the first time since online shopping was born about a decade ago, retailers are helping that trend along with a range of technical gimmicks on sites that sell clothes and accessories.

We ask our regular guest and technology writer Mario Armstrong to tell us more.

Mr. MARIO ARMSTRONG (Technology Writer): Now you're starting to see Web sites changing, becoming more sophisticated. You're also seeing more and more people getting high-speed Internet, which means now the Web sites can show you video. They can give you more what they call an essence of a touch. I can zoom in on products. I can zoom out on items and almost even see what some of these items may look like on me or look like on some of my similar body style. Meanwhile, Web companies are also evolving into standards.

MONTAGNE: Give an example. What do you mean by standards?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: So what I mean by that is, let's say you go to your favorite shopping Web site. You're used to being able to log into that Web site, follow a shopping cart process, being able to find items through an easy search mechanism and then have a checkout procedure. If those types of procedures pretty much follow standards throughout other sites, it becomes easier for consumers.

MONTAGNE: Now, in all of this, there's something that might make a lot of people more comfortable buying clothes on the Web, and that's something called the virtual dressing room.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yes, a virtual dressing room - the ability for you to walk into a store and be able to stand in front of a three-panel mirror, have an image of yourself while you try on virtual clothes. This is pretty interesting use of technology, because now I can also send that image to family and friends in their email or cell phones to get a thumbs up or thumbs down for what I'm trying on.

MONTAGNE: But this is a little like a paper doll?

Mr., ARMSTRONG: It's just like a paper doll.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: So - but effectively, it gives you a chance to get comfortable with the purchase. You're not seeing it on the model.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: You're not seeing it on the model. You're seeing it on you. Obviously, you don't get to see how it feels on you, but it does minimize your shopping experience. So real quickly, if you like what you saw on the virtual display, now you go out into the store and actually try that on. Then you can actually see how it feels on you, how it feels when you walk. And then you can email or text that image of yourself to see how other friends and family feel about that outfit.

MONTAGNE: Besides clothing, another sort of very particular item that might want to touch or feel or get a look at the real color is furniture.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yes. This is really one of those areas that was predicted, that furniture will never be something that you would buy online. Not expensive furniture, anyway - maybe a chair, maybe a mirror, some artwork, but never a full sofa or a whole bedroom set or a home office. Are you kidding? It's just wouldn't happen without being able you to touch it and feel it.

And so now you see the Web sites liked furniturefromhome.com and others popping up, and people are loving this opportunity to shop together online in the convenience of their home - in some cases even overseas, with the married couples in the military are using Web sites like this to furnish their homes without having to go stores.

MONTAGNE: And the return is free?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yes.

MONTAGNE: That's pretty key.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: It is key. I mean, part of what's making people feel more comfortable shopping online is a new trend of free returns. Renee, if you're shoe fanatic and you want to buy several pairs of shoes, but you don't feel comfortable committing until you've tried that shoe on, wouldn't it be nice for you to order online 3 or 4 pairs of your favorite shoes, try them on with no questions asked, postage paid for, return the ones that don't work out with your wardrobes at home? That's where people are going and that's what's also helping shape this new trend of shopping comfortably online.

MONTAGNE: Mario, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: Mario Armstrong is a technology writer and a regular guest on MORNING EDITION.

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