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In Colorado, a company says it can help retailers boost clothing sales with more life-like mannequins - you know, those custom-made mannequins. These new ones are supposed to look like the real people who shop in stores, or at least look the way shoppers imagine themselves.

From member station KUNC, Grace Hood has more on this marketing tactic and whether it's working.

GRACE HOOD: In this economy, getting customers to walk to the cash register takes real work, sometimes magic.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Child: Sleeping Beauty.

Unidentified Man: That's my favorite.

Unidentified Woman: My fairy arms didn't know whether to make my dress pink or blue.

HOOD: In this Southern California Disney Store, an employee helps a young customer wave a purple wand at a talking mirror. It's part of the store's redesign, which includes playful, child-size mannequins that encourage shoppers to interact with the merchandise. The mannequins appear to curtsey, jump after balloons, and in some stores, fly.

Ms. TERRI COOPER: They definitely look like they're more lifelike.

HOOD: Terri Cooper is shopping along with her daughter and granddaughter. The idea behind the new mannequins is to show children in real and imaginary play poses.

Regional Manager Jeff Zimmerman stands near a plastic, white castle. On top is a mannequin sitting cross-legged, wearing a blue Cinderella dress. He says they can inspire parents...

Mr. JEFF ZIMMERMAN (Regional Manager, Disney Store): ...to kind of evoke a sense of imagination of your child maybe wearing that dress, and what else to explore in this particular neighborhood.

HOOD: The 32 redesigned Disney Stores are calling their sales very strong for swimsuits and costumes shown on these mannequins. And the company believes the displays played a role in that success.

Chains like Athleta, Charlotte Russe and Dick's Sporting Goods are also putting money into new mannequins. And that's boosted sales for one of the world's largest custom mannequin makers, Fusion Specialties.

(Soundbite of clattering)

Ms. ILLEANA BARBU (Sculptor): I have a maquette here that I've been working on.

HOOD: Outside of Denver, sculptor Ileana Barbu is carving a two-foot clay sculpture, one of the first stages in creating a custom mannequin prototype. Next to her, gray limbs hang from a so-called arm caddy. In fact, she's surrounded by life-size body parts.

MS. BARBU: And I have a bunch of other heads, like those ones, like those ones like my colleagues have worked on, too.

HOOD: Each design coming out of this studio meets the needs of specific retailers. And Peter Huston, who manages this brand for Fusion, says mannequins can change dramatically, depending on what they're selling.

Mr. PETER HUSTON (Manager, Fusion Specialties): That's why for Guess Accessories, a tall, sleek mannequin that has actually the detail removed but gives you these beautiful fluid lines to accentuate accessories is a very appropriate and unique use of mannequins.

HOOD: But the needs of Guess are very different from those of Dick's Sporting Goods, which recently updated its mannequins to have more chiseled muscles and athletic poses.

For Disney, Fusion created pint-sized mannequins after studying real kids at play. The price of creating a custom prototype can run companies from 12 to $24,000. And that's just getting started.

Mass production for Fusion mannequins can run up to $550 each. By way of comparison, an everyday mannequin costs as little as 150. Not only is this custom mannequin process expensive, it can be painstaking.

(Soundbite of tools winding up)

HOOD: The molds are attached to a platter the size of a satellite dish. While it rotates, they're filled with a polyurethane substance. After the material dries, workers open up the mold like a cello case. The mannequins are sanded and prepped for the next stage: paint.

(Soundbite of machinery)

HOOD: There's a reason why retailers are willing to invest so much money into such a complicated process.

Mr. CRAIG CHILDRESS (Envirosell): As online shopping grows and grows, it seems that people coming into the stores are even more and more interested in tactile experience.

HOOD: Craig Childress is with Envirosell, a New York City-based firm that studies consumer behavior. He says a well-designed mannequin will invite shoppers to interact with the merchandise.

Mr. CHILDRESS: It's really amazing to us how static retail environments are. So anything that actually has perception of moving or is actually moving really gets attention very quickly.

HOOD: While it may start with action, a successful mannequin has to ultimately reflect something that customers want to see in themselves, according to Fusion Specialties' Peter Huston.

Mr. HUSTON: A well-designed mannequin will always be far more aspirational than it is realistic. And so you walk a fine line there.

HOOD: A line retailers hope will lead right to the cash register.

For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood.

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