The future of shopping is virtually here

Retail has undergone one of the toughest, yet most transformative periods in history over the last 18 months or so, thanks to the pandemic.


Retail has undergone one of the toughest, yet most transformative periods in history over the last 18 months or so, thanks to the pandemic.

We’ve seen the closure of international brands, supply chains broken and, in the US and Europe, fights over essential items like bathroom tissue, flour and pasta.

But one thing has heralded a sea change in the global retail sector, and that’s the wholesale shift to shopping online. People who, a few short years ago, had never made an online purchase, are now doing everything online – from buying groceries to cars, and everything in between.

And with that rapid pivot from bricks and mortar to virtual, there’s been an acceleration in technology adoption – and consumer understanding.

Staying ahead of the curve today means retailers need to adopt more intelligent ways of attracting people to their presence online – and I’ve seen that coming as virtual stores with 3D/360 product viewing.

Shopee, the giant south-east Asia-focused shopping app, perhaps exemplifies everything cutting-edge in current online retail.

Firstly, the expanding company has developed a number of successful brand ambassadorships, including footballer Cristiano Ronaldo and martial arts film star Jackie Chan, as well as local girl groups and boy bands, TV and movie stars.  This certainly puts the ‘cool’ into e-shopping, at least by association.

But at the heart of its offering is a slick, intuitive shopping experience, putting social first and focused on mobile usage.  Users can buy and sell via the enormously popular app and website, which is now moving into Spain, France and Portugal, with rumours of a launch in India, and strong moves into Central and South America.

Future e-tailers should probably take note – the real markets for future growth are mobile apps in emerging markets – where mobile phones are far more common than laptops.

The emerging trends of 3D and virtual store walk-throughs are set to grow – and here are some of the features, benefits and potential pitfalls I’ve identified.

Better understanding of product look and feel

We all know the importance of touching something we’d like to purchase, and seeing it in the real world. So, of course, do retailers.

Finding ways to encourage more purchases is always a sensible approach, so delivering 3D images or virtual store walk throughs only serve to enhance the buying experience.

Ability to put items in a virtual room

For many years now, certain stores – especially when it comes to home furnishings – have allowed customers to experience what something might look like in certain spaces.

This has been accelerated and taken to the next level thanks to the pandemic. Even supermarkets are examining new virtual ways to shop, with this Walmart virtual store mock-up demonstration revealing some interesting ideas.

More interactive, more likely to purchase

The greater the interactivity, the more likely a consumer is to understand if the products meets their needs and desires. I might even suggest that the ultimate in interactive shopping is AI-data driven personalisation, as we’ve seen with, which serves up clothes and accessories in your size and style, after a questionnaire which asks not only for your body measurements, but what styles, colour and fits you like and dislike.

More fun/ better experience

Virtual retail sites could have remained a stale, soulless experience. But I love how the retail sector – long renowned for its innovation – has embraced technology and run with it.

The Walmart example above may be a little clunky, but even researching the possibilities shows encouraging signs of continuing innovation. Ultimately, online shopping experiences must be easy, intuitive and fun.

Put simply, any store that offers a little more fun, more interactivity, than a competitor will be the one that survives.

While nothing beats personalised service in a real-world store, the virtual experience means people on the opposite side of the world can buy items with ease, as if they were strolling along ‘High Street USA’.

I’m not suggesting a homogenous experience is the ultimate aim, rather that virtual shopping opens-up the opportunity for retailers to sell to a much larger audience. Niche products have become far easier to find, and savvy stores now ship globally with ease.

All that remains is for us consumers to have a robo-assistant to do all that tiresome online shopping for us!

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