Without doubt, 2020 was a year that overturned our lives, influencing our behaviour as consumers. In the retail sector, hard-hit by the pandemic, the online purchasing experience has shown the expansion of a decade in just a few months, with a 26% growth and a turnover of 22.7 billion euro in 2020 (source: B2C eCommerce Observatory, Politecnico di Milano – Milan Technical University). When consumers return to brick-and-mortar stores, they will have a new awareness that will increasingly narrow the separation between physical and digital space.
How are brands operating in this new scenario?
Over the course of the last twelve months, many companies, above all in the world of fashion, have ventured into new, hitherto unexplored, territories. Augmented reality, virtual stores and distance assistance are just some of the solutions that we have encountered and learnt how to manage.
Prada’s virtual fashion show for the women’s Spring/Summer 2021 collection, streamed live globally
STAYING IN CONTACT WITH CONSUMERS
One of the first companies to take steps in this direction, with the objective of staying in direct contact with its consumers, is IKEA. After having abandoned its printed catalogue, the Swedish giant opened its first virtual store in which consumers can move along a route and make purchases with just a click, with the assistance of a virtual reality headset.
The IKEA virtual store
Hybrid approaches of this sort were also experimented by Gucci and Piquadro. Both of them offered its customers a virtual experience in which its sales assistants, wearing 3D glasses, take the place of consumers, providing a true distance personal shopping service.
A new virtual personal shopping service by Gucci and Piquadro
These examples highlight the concern, particularly on the part of luxury brands, of generating value for an expression of e-commerce that is principally involved in products. Online purchasing leaves little opportunity for a brand to develop effective storytelling that can be perceived by the consumer. To avoid a sensation of dullness in the product range available, technology can provide an effective tool for disclosing the brand’s values, recreating the type of contact experience that usually occurs in the physical space.
NEW IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCES
With a view to involving customers in a new purchasing experience, virtual reality is the tool that comes closest to the physical situation. Immersive techniques are providing a new outlook on the use of content and engagement. For 2022, it has been estimated that about 2 billion people will utilise virtual reality at least once a month, with an estimated growth of 125 billion dollars over the next four years.
One of the latest examples was provided by FCA for the CES show in Las Vegas, the technology trade fair which this year took place in virtual format. The Italian-American group simulated a three-dimensional stand at which the visitor, accompanied by a virtual assistant, could interact with 3D models of vehicles, personalising colours and learning about the interior details.
FCA and its virtual showroom during the CES show in Las Vegas
For the launch of the Spring/Summer 2021 collection, Diesel decided to replicate the event in the virtual world. The Hyperoom project gave its buyers the possibility of exploring the three-dimensional showroom, with guidance by sales staff provided by a live-chat platform.
Hyperoom by Diesel, a virtual showroom for the launch of the new collection
The most extreme and visionary example was offered by Harry Nuriev, Russian artist and founder of Crosby Studios, who launched Crosby Studios Homes, the first wholly online furnishing and lifestyle brand. Software from the world of gaming was used to display the collection, reconstructing an apartment entirely decorated with objects and items for the home. On the website, by means of a self-guided tour, customers can download 3D models of each article and order articles from the collection.
Crosby Studios Homes, the first online furnishing and lifestyle brand
THE PHYGITAL FUTURE
Companies’ investment into the online sector as opposed to stores, illustrated, for example, by Zara’s closure of over 1,200 points of sale, is leading to a new balance between physical and digital space. Even though some tools, such as augmented reality, are still only minimally accessible and exploited, the online experience will be a priority in the future. Stores will therefore have to evolve, offering an integrated experience in which to create more intense connections by rethinking purchasing processes.
However, the future will not involve exclusively the use of the latest technology to dazzle customers, but rather it will guarantee that the technological methods that are adopted meet consumer needs. Brick-and-mortar stores will become brands’ opportunity for creating a holistic experience in which to nurture the fidelity of its audience, going beyond solely the purchase of products. The design of omnichannel strategies capable of creating authentic relations with customers will be of key importance for long-term survival and for remaining relevant on the market.