Virtual stores and the future of eCommerce

Editorial Team

5 min read
Viewing virtual chair in living space with augmented reality
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eCommerce offers consumers the convenience and efficiency they crave, but it can also sacrifice the immersive and social aspects of in-person shopping. Virtual stores, on the other hand, utilize the latest technology, including augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), to enhance customer experience and engagement. What’s more, 88% of U.S. brands and retailers that have invested in virtual stores have seen an increase in total sales as a result.

That’s great news for small businesses who want to invest in their own virtual shopping experience that provides innovative ways to try out an online product or interact with a sales associate. Incorporating the technology of virtual stores into your eCommerce business can help strengthen your relationship with customers and give them a clearer sense of what you’re offering. While virtual stores can set your online business apart from competitors, it’s important to weigh both benefits and the costs before you launch into setting one up.

Here’s what you need to know about virtual stores and how to determine whether they’re right for your business. 

What is a virtual store?

A virtual store is an eCommerce environment that’s enhanced in some way by extended-reality technologies. Virtual enhancements like 3D modeling or augmented reality are designed to mimic the shopping experience–that is, help customers feel like they’re immersed in the shopping experience, closing the gap between online and brick-and-mortar retail. 

A virtual shopping platform is one that uses technology to create an immersive shopping experience to engage and captivate consumers in a way that feels like an in-person shopping trip–and right from the consumer’s own computer, phone, or other device.

Different types of virtual stores

A virtual store can take many forms. The primary goal of a virtual shopping experience is to give consumers a better idea of a product before purchasing. The benefit to shoppers is that they can check out a product in a way that’s more like an in-person shopping experience and get a better feel for what that product is really like. The benefit to retailers is that it can help set clearer buyer expectations of a product, and that, in turn, can reduce the possibility of returns.

There are basically 4 types of virtual stores or capabilities available.

1. Virtual try-ons and try-outs

Virtual stores that offer try-ons and try-outs can help online customers determine whether a product is right for them by recreating the in-store trial experience. For example, eyewear brands use AR or VR technology to allow customers at home to virtually try on a pair of glasses, while beauty brands let shoppers see how they like different products and colors on their skin. Home goods retailers also offer virtual try-outs, allowing customers to see how a piece of furniture would look in a particular room. 

2. 3D modeling and 360 views

Virtual shopping platforms can allow customers to see a product from all sides as though they were able to move around it or pick it up in a store. This type of virtual enhancement could be incorporated into an existing eCommerce site. Take, for example, the way that Amazon allows users to view still photos and an interactive 360-view of a product.

3. Live video customer service

A virtual store could include the option to video chat with a sales associate to recreate the social interaction of in-person shopping. This allows the shopper to ask questions and converse with a staff member to get a better sense of a product or receive the guidance associated with conventional customer service. 

4. Virtual reality store

On the fully immersive end, a virtual store could be a full VR experience that requires a headset to navigate for full immersion into a shopping experience. This type of virtual store is the most comprehensive and all-encompassing and requires a significant investment from both the business and the consumer, who needs their own technology to access the experience.

The benefits and costs of virtual stores

The key benefits of virtual stores for retailers are that they create a more robust experience for customers and deepen engagement with customers who, thanks to the technology, can make more informed product and purchase decisions. And, because the virtual shopping experience is a buzzy and quickly developing retail trend, virtual stores can also help extend a retailers’ reach through word-of-mouth.

On the other hand, while a virtual store can cost less to run than a brick-and-mortar business, there are several expenses to consider in determining whether a virtual store is the right direction for enhancing your existing eCommerce site. For starters, virtual stores often require a fairly hefty initial investment to set up the technology. And, there can be additional costs in maintaining the virtual experience. 

It comes down to this: every retailer must consider whether the products you offer would benefit from enhancements like virtual try-ons or 360-views. Those types of capabilities can work really well for clothing and home goods, but likely won’t enhance the experience or sales of other products, like food or beverages.

The great news for small businesses and retailers is that as technology continues to evolve, incorporating elements of virtual stores into your eCommerce site is likely to become both simpler and more cost effective. 

To learn more about eCommerce and selling products online, talk to a Clover Business Consultant today.

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