Sales Embraces the Experience Economy
With the COVID-19 pandemic either eliminating or seriously limiting in-person interactions, companies have had a hard time selling everything from furniture to clothes to lipstick. After all, how can someone tell whether a makeup shade matches her complexion without testing out the product?
Luckily, technology has provided the answer.
Augmented reality and virtual reality for sales have been around ever since those technologies first were available to the public, but commercial applications of the technology are now more widely available than ever before. The concept has been limited thus far mostly to leading-edge companies, but mass adoption is not too distant.
“Physical retail is going to get more experiential,” says Cate Trotter, head of trends at retail consultancy Insider Trends, “but it’s not as big as some people might think.”
Trotter sees e-commerce becoming more experiential. “Across the board, there are all these ways that retailers can entertain customers, educate them, tell their stories better. It seems like every time you make e-commerce more experiential, there are more sales and the average spend is higher.”
Customer acquisition rates are going up, even as consumers today are increasingly more distracted, both online and in store, adds Sarah Cascone, vice president of marketing at Bluecore, a marketing technology provider. “So retailers are getting hyperfocused on improving that shopper experience. These experiential channels allow for the creation of these memorable shopping experiences in a way that is convenient. And this also gives brands insight into shopper preferences, so they can recommend products over and over. Getting folks to buy and buy again is mission-critical now.”
The number of consumers using experiential technology is still relatively small. In the United States, only 1 percent of consumers own VR/AR units, according to Graham Ralston, head of operations at Spot Virtual, a provider of those devices.
For both companies and consumers, the cost of the technology is steep, Trotter says. “The ROI is dependent on what companies are paying for the technology,” she states.
But companies are solving that issue by offering augmented reality through their apps. For example, Home Depot offers an AR feature on product detail pages for home decor, furniture, and seasonal decorations; consumers can tap it to see the furnishings in their homes with 3-D augmented reality.
“Home Depot has a great AR experience,” says Jay Myers, cofounder and vice president of growth at Bold Commerce. “And they’re investing heavily in it because they are seeing benefits.”
According to published reports, Home Depot has seen conversion rates two to three times higher for customers who use the app compared to those who don’t.
Home Depot was one of the first companies to offer such a feature on its app, doing so before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19. But the pandemic pushed many other merchants to offer similar solutions.
In 2020, Amazon released an app that is similar to Home Depot’s, but with features and functionality tied to its brand that go beyond experiential sales.
With Amazon’s “View It in Your Room,” smartphone users with the AR Core app installed simply need to open the Amazon app, tap the camera icon in the search bar, scroll to “view in your room,” and select a product. This applies to thousands of products, with each sized and rendered to scale in the users’ home, office, or wherever else they plan to place them.
Whether that’s renovations, door frames, window frames, curtains, or other big-ticket items, they’re prime for AR. That was the original promise to the e-commerce world.
Only a few years ago, retail experts doubted such items could be sold via e-commerce because people would want to see them in their homes before buying, which is what AR permits.
Now the home goods sector is leading the way in using technology for experiential sales, though other product categories are quickly gaining traction, according to Cascone.
The advantage of AR compared to more traditional forms of marketing is that the technology, though expensive, still pales in comparison to some other marketing avenues. “A professional photo shoot for something like household decor isn’t cheap. You need to rent a studio, professional photographers, lighting, and models to the point where it can be very expensive and time-consuming,” Myers says.
AR, on the other hand, enables companies to swap out textures and colors on items and assemble different items (i.e., couch, chairs, and other living room furniture) as a package so the potential buyer can see how they come together, Myers adds. The user can also access additional information, such as product specs, star ratings, etc., without leaving the app.
“You’re building everything virtually, so the brand doesn’t have to pay models, pay for studio models, etc.,” Myers said. “A lot of brands actually say it’s cheaper to do AR and VR and 3-D modeling than it is to create the studio environment.”
Though AR for experiential sales started with large items like furniture, the technology has evolved and come down in price enough that it can now be used to sell much smaller items.
“Now people are buying eyeglasses and trying them online,” Myers said. “They’re trying on lipstick online. Sephora has a great app that my wife uses. With the app, you can try any shade, any color [of lipstick, etc.] and see how it will look on you. The app is really good.”
The bottom line,” Myers concludes, “is that any way shoppers can interact with or experience an item increases the chance that they will buy it.”
Online clothing retailer MTailor, for example, lets users scan or take pictures of their bodies, then upload them to its mobile app, which can then design tailored clothing that it says will fit better than the off-the shelf products one would purchase in a physical store. The technology also eliminates the need for consumers to order multiple sizes to try on and then return those that don’t fit or look right.
The user chooses the desired items from the company’s online store, customizes them (color, etc.) and checks out directly from the website, and then downloads the measurement app.
The company’s measurement app captures a brief video and turns that into a full set of 16 custom measurements. With a 360-degree turn of the phone, the technology captures front, back and side measurements.
According to MTailor research, the company’s measurements have resulted in 20 percent better results than a sample group received from a professional tailor. The company offers a 90-day “perfect fit” guarantee.
Going a step further, virtual mirrors are another form of the technology that enables consumers to see how they would look wearing complete outfits.
Such technology does provide an uplift in sales for retailers, according to virtual mirror provider True Fit. J. Crew is one such retailer, which has reported that users of True Fit convert 38.4 percent more than non-True Fit users. Fellow retailer Kate Spade reported that its conversions doubled with True Fit.
Other brands using the True Fit virtual mirror include Asics, Boden, Forever New, Lane Bryant, Lands End, and M&Co.
“Fashion is too personal to rely on basic data and averaging to predict a shopper’s best fit,” Rhonda Textor, vice president of data science at True Fit, says on the company website. “Fit guidance is served to shoppers in many forms today, from a standard size chart to crowd sizing. Our data and algorithms reveal so much detail about the unique dimensions and proportions of shoppers without that shopper taking out a measuring tape. Understanding their preferences based on what they wear and love gives us the opportunity to turn hesitation into confidence and ultimately trust.”
True Fit connects data from products across sites and shoppers to provide retailers with a unique view into shopper demographics, fit strategy and category, price, and brand preferences.
Another virtual mirror provider, Modern Mirror, says it “is designed to assist in reinvigorating the luxury experience to offset e-commerce ennui, bridge the online and offline experience, and establish a visionary new standard for luxury retail while staying true to the art of fashion. Modern Mirror is a brand partner throughout the journey of a garment: from the first sketch to the runway, and every step in between and after.”
While fashion continually evolves, distribution and buying processes have been stagnating for decades, according to Modern Mirror. Yet, the pressure to increase profitability through e-commerce growth and in-store footfall is escalating the demand for seamless virtual try-on and B2B virtual marketplace solutions.
Modern Mirror’s products and services are designed to integrate into physical retail and digital platform experiences, creating a consumer-centric and unified experience for all users, it says on its website.
VIRTUAL ROOMS AND AVATARS
Another recent innovation in experiential selling, virtual rooms and avatars enable buyers and sellers to interact in a personal way without the need for a physical store, according to Ralston. Spot Virtual offers such virtual environments, enabling buyers and sellers to meet there from remote locations. They can add audio and visual, much like Zoom, Google Meets, and other conferencing apps.
The virtual walls include virtual picture frames, where sellers can display various items, such as non-fungible tokens (NFTs), artwork, pictures of vacation locations, etc. NFTs are unique and non-interchangeable units of data stored on a blockchain, a form of digital ledger that can be associated with reproducible digital files, such as photos and videos.
Ralston pointed out that NFTs are becoming much more popular, particularly as companies such as Roblox offer virtual environments in which one can dress their personal avatars (for a small fee) in preferred clothes, such as Nike shoes or L.L. Bean shirts.
NON-TECH EXPERIENTIAL SALES
Beyond the AR, VR, and other technology-based ways of building experiential sales, other companies are pursuing them through physical encounters, Trotter says. For example, U.K. home furnishings and fashion store John Lewis & Partners has a garden setting on the rooftop of its flagship store in London that is crafted to look like a beautiful English garden where one might go to have afternoon tea.
In addition to tea, during the Christmas season, the store adds Christmas trees to the setting and offers Christmas cocktails, Trotter says. “The idea is that as you are walking through the store, you might buy something, or at the very least, you reconnect with the John Lewis brand.”
The company balances this “slow experience” with a robust e-commerce business, Trotter adds. “We talk to our clients about this. We call it the fast and the slow. You need both.”
Similarly, CAMP, a toy store chain that touts its “Family Experience,”offers rotating hands-on experiences, such as mermaid walls, slides, and musical bridges combined with unique toys, books, candy, collectibles, and even some mainstream licensed products. Every few months, behind the secret door, the exhibits change, so there’s a good chance the whole space will look totally different with each visit.
The stores generate three revenue streams as a result—from the sale of toys to consumers, the sale of sponsorships to other companies, and the sale of tickets to events held at the stores.
“People are paying for the experience,” Trotter says.
With the wide variety of new technologies like this available, experiential sales will continue to evolve and increase in popularity, with companies expanding their experiential sales with tech-supported and physical experiences, Trotter predicts.
The pandemic led to a marked uptick in experiential technologies, accelerating their adoption, Cascone adds. After the recent boom, she expects some levelling off this year before investment in the technologies accelerates again.
Phillip Britt is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.