Alternative online shopping experiences

Shopping as entertainment comes up frequently as a trend. For example, 10 Consumer Trends Shaping the Future of Retail mentions it including 51% miss “going shopping” as a way to socialize; and 25% regularly tune into video shopping channels like QVC or HSN. But how to create an enjoyable online social shopping experience? In this post I toss a few ideas out there.

VR Avatars

There has been a growing VR community with many VTubers (YouTubers with VR Avatars) and VR Chat members. To get a bit of a feel, check out the recent twitter thread on #NEOKET. The quality of some of the avatars is impressive! (check out VRoid Studio if you want to try it yourself for free). 

The avatar becomes the identity of the user, so you want to reuse the avatar across systems. This is why I think standards such as VRM are so important. Unity had a recent session talking about bringing assets between environments (if I get a virtual concert souvenir, can show it off in a different platform?), so I know the big players in the field are thinking about these issues.

While fun, and it will be easier to create avatars over time, I am not sure how many shoppers would be willing to go to the effort. This may be more relevant to passionate fans than the general public.

Live streams

Video live streams I think definitely have a place in the engagement side. Being able to see a product, be educated on a product, with a bit of entertainment at the same time is a good path. But live streams are more like watching TV, with increased interactivity via chat – they are not a social experience with distant friends.

Source: https://a16z.com/2019/12/05/video-first-ecommerce/ 

Video Chat

I think getting closer is the idea of jumping on a video chat with friends, where the screen share is a shared web browser. You are in a controlled group of friends (no strangers), you can see them for the personal side, you have a shared area where you explore products.

Source: Improvements to layouts in Google Meet

Going further, I could imagine having tabs in the shared areas so people could branch off and explore different products (for when you have larger groups). If someone makes a good find, they can tell others and they can flip to that tab. This is the equivalent of a group of friends in a store, splitting up to explore different sections, coming together when they make a good find and getting opinions of friends.

Proximity and Presence

You could imagine combining the virtual and real world. Rather than only share a web browser page, create virtual worlds with products. One of the tabs in the main area is the virtual world, showing where others are in proximity. This would however require new shopping metaphors – how to browse products in a virtual space effectively, sharing discoveries with others, without having to 3D digitize all your products.

Source: https://hackmd.io/@XR/vket3 

One way I have seen which seemed practical in the short term was to have flat 2D product cards. The cards can display a static image, videos, cycle through different product images, etc. These cards could be on hangers (like a clothes rack) to pack them densely, or displayed in interesting novel ways. One virtual store I saw had a spiral pole in the middle of the store (like a spring) where product cards were hanging from the pole, drifting up the spiral in an infinite procession. Because they rotated with the spiral, anywhere in the store you could see at least some of them. (I wish I had taken a screenshot!)

Source: https://www.qbittech.com/index.php/component/k2/41-virtual-reality-ecommerce-3d-stores 

People could also, for fun, show their avatar face in their video stream instead of their real face. No need to look good or dress up for that outing with friends – just use your avatar. There is good face and hand tracking software around now based on webcams (e.g. VSeeFace) that can control your avatar (as used by VTubers). The Retail Touchpoints article above found “50% say they’re more aware of their appearance as a result of increased FaceTime/Zoom; 38% agree they’re more critical of their appearance and of others”.

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2020/04/14/pragli-remote-office-application/ 

Interacting with Sales Assistants

How would you seek help from a sales associate? One way is to have a “ask for help button” on a tab. The next available sales associate would then join your joint stream, answer questions, show additional products in their own main area tab, then leave when no longer required. They could use an avatar or real video stream, just like other participants. That way sales associates can move between multiple shoppers on site, just like in a real store.

Conclusions

I don’t think experiences such as the above replace the real experience of visiting a store. But I do think we can make remote shopping experiences more fun, more social, more enjoyable. Most of the traditional ecommerce experiences I have seen today miss out on the social aspect of shopping with friends. I don’t know how much such experiences would increase sales, but it is interesting to think about what experiences could be created.

There is a different question of course – should shopping experiences be made more entertaining, or should entertaining experiences be easier to shop from. TikTok, Instagram, and other social media platforms I would argue are taking the latter approach. I suspect there is room in the world for both.

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