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COVID-19: Pandemic brings ecommerce forward by decades

By Retail Technology | Friday April 24 2020

The COVID-19 crisis has had an unprecedented effect on ecommerce that will see the online retail market rapidly evolve writes London Dynamics CEO Michael Valdsgaard

For a long time, ‘brick and mortar’ retailers have seen falling in-store traffic, as customers gravitate to the convenience and pricing of online shopping.

Some retailers were in the process of embracing that change, investing in better, more fluid ecommerce options. Others – particularly those who felt their products needed to be experienced in-person – were dragging their heels. It may have seemed that no browser-based experience could match what they offered in-store.

The measures put in place by governments to combat COVID-19 have put an end to any complacency about the need to embrace ecommerce. Decades of migration towards a general preference for online shopping, increased familiarity and demands for better experience, have been packed into months – maybe even weeks.

According to a recent poll by User Conversion, 30% of UK users believe that they are more likely to choose online over in-store retail even after the current pandemic has been brought under control.

It’s past time retailers revaluate their online presence – whatever their starting point – and learn about tools that can translate real-world experience to a new format.

Tomorrow’s ecommerce moves in new dimensions

Despite incredible personalisation options and ‘one-click’ convenience, few brands have figured out how to offer online shoppers a real ‘try-before-you-buy’ experience.

Many avoid the issue entirely, and they accept that the customer can’t or won’t develop trust in the product based on a written description and a few images, so they offer free shipping for multiple options and eat the cost of returns after an ‘in-home’ trial.  

This is not what the future of ecommerce looks like. The environmental and logistics costs of a ‘free-return’ system aside, this approach completely ignores technology available today which adds dimension, interactivity and texture to online shopping. The fact that ecommerce continues to largely rely on an entirely 2D experience has put a huge cap on its potential.

There are a number of solutions now available which break the 2D mould that retail leaders can’t afford to miss. Many have been quietly evolving to the extent where today they offer a fast and affordable route to experience products in real life before buying online.

Augmented Reality (AR) is a seemingly futuristic technology that’s gaining traction by helping customers in their online decision journey, and enabling true-to-life ‘try-before-you-buy’ experiences from the comfort of their homes.

Where retail’s in-store legacy meets its digital future

Augmented Reality inserts computer-generated 3D models into a user’s environment viewed through their phone. It’s a function built into nearly all modern smartphones issued in the past two years which will only become more common over the current replacement cycle.

The most advanced implementations of AR access this power directly from the browser, integrating with existing retailer websites with no need for a separate app download. 3D assets can be built to accurately reflect the real product – photo-realistic and true to scale – that can even recognise and respond to the environment its placed in, such as lighting and reflections.

Today, brands have started to deployed AR to the extent where complete ranges of products can be viewed or compared via AR, and many are catching on. Companies like IKEA and Houzz have spent years refining their catalogue of 3D products so customers can experiment and make more confident purchases online. Other brands which understand the power of customer experience like Burberry, Specsavers and L’Oréal have launched AR showcases for a wide range of products, and more are being announced every day.

For most online retailers, AR is still an untapped opportunity, but it’s certainly not only for global brands with global budgets. Today, specialist developers can build catalogues featuring hundreds of intricate, textured 3D assets for retailers of any industry and size, and provide high level results within days, not months. For those businesses most deeply impacted by the complete and ongoing loss of in-store traffic, there’s never been a better time to bring their products to the consumers rather than bring their consumers to the products.

Augmented commerce has arrived to take online shopping to the next level

It’s no understatement to call this one of the most incredible, transformational moments in the history of retail. No company will emerge the same, and digital fluency will be on everyone’s strategic agenda.

The critical elements of good sales – in-store and online alike – are no less important now than they have ever been. Powerful enhancements to ecommerce are now within grasp for any brand that wants to launch their online experience into its future, and learn new ways to delight customers, increase conversions, and entrench loyalty.

If nothing else, COVID-19 has brought an online future that was already bearing down on every brand into much sharper focus. Those who take advantage of this are most likely to survive and succeed.

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