The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the offline-to-online convergence in retail, leading to a huge shift in the way people shop over a short period of time. Shelter-in-place orders have forced shoppers to purchase the majority of their goods online, and it's made retailers rethink the way they'll operate in the post-pandemic world.
Big-box retailers have beefed up their ecommerce divisions, and we've seen dozens of major chains with new curbside pickup options. Some types of retail environments have done better than others. Hardware stores, like Home Depot and Lowe's, have found themselves categorized as "essential" businesses, and they've been able to remain open in many areas with little adaptation necessary. The transition has been harder for retailers in high-touch categories, like clothing, and for those independent operators that didn't have websites with ecommerce capabilities in place before the pandemic began.
While online sales at general-merchandise retailers have soared, online sales for apparel and footwear retailers have plunged since the beginning of the outbreak, according to Rakuten Intelligence.
For independent fashion retailers without a strong online presence, coronavirus has been exceptionally rough. According to ShopperTrak, foot traffic to US stores fell 58% in the third week of March. Apparel saw a 78% decline. With all signs pointing to an extended recovery, these independent fashion retailers are looking at ways they can bring people into their stores virtually, rather than physically.
So-called virtual shopping experiences, where customers can video conference with sales associates and walk around showrooms virtually, as if they were inside the store, could be the solution that some retailers are looking for.
For Lucchese, a custom boot maker in Texas, video shopping has become a lifeline. Lucchese started its video shopping system back in late December, well before Texas Governor Greg Abbott started asking citizens to stay at home. But during the time of the lockdown — and even still, with many people reluctant to do non-essential shopping in-person — Lucchese's virtual shopping system has helped the business generate sales while continuing social distancing.
Platforms like Immerss and Obsess are enabling retailers to create their own visual, interactive, engaging virtual store environments. Salesfloor is offering industry-specific modules to connect sales associates with customers through the web, email, mobile, SMS, and social media. Virtual reality companies are also developing scalable 3D VR ecommerce online store experiences for retailers who've had their brick-and-mortar locations closed temporarily.
"We're seeing various brands trying all kinds of ways from FaceTime to Zoom to establish that human-to-human connection. Retailers and their customers are hungry for this interaction, but the truth be told, the video commerce tech is still very young and there are very few enterprise-level tools on the market," says Arthur Veytsman, CEO of Immerss, a platform that leverages shoppable live video technology.
Knowing that most store sales associates would be working from home during the pandemic, Immerss has modified its app to allow associates to continue selling and earning commissions when they're outside the traditional store environment.
Veytsman says he's seen retailers using Immerss in some creative ways during the crisis. For example, some retailers are using outbound messaging to reach out to their VIP clients and schedule private video shopping appointments.Veytsman says online trunk shows are also allowing retailers to conduct QVC-like video commerce experiences directly through their websites.
Avant Gallery in New York is trying out a similar video shopping experience, but adding a robot to the mix. The gallery's owner is using a robot with an iPad-like screen to let buyers virtually enter the gallery space. Buyers control the robot remotely from their laptops or mobile devices, but staff inside the gallery can interact with buyers as if they're on a FaceTime call.
Although the types of robots used by Avant Gallery have been used in various ways since before the pandemic began, retailers in high-touch categories expect to start taking advantage of this type of technology to connect with customers in new ways during periods of social distancing and isolation. Virtual platforms that rely on video and social integrations also act as a marketing tool, since people are likely to talk about their interactive experiences with friends or on social media channels.
"Ecommerce exists for many reasons. Sometimes it's convenience and sometimes it is a necessity," Veytsman says. "Being able to shop in-person with a sales associate you really connected with is definitely a great example. Our solution is all about that human-to-human connection that is hard to replace."
Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.