How experiential eCommerce virtualises the in-store experience

Shopping behaviour has changed significantly over the past few months, as many consumers around the world have spent at least some time under “shelter-in-place” orders. 

Compared with the same time last year, for example, February 2020 saw a 10.3% increase in time spent monthly on mobile eCommerce for female users in China. And the types of platforms they use to make purchases are also evolving: social commerce makes up a whopping 11.6% (and growing) of retail eCommerce sales.

Much like how brick-and-mortar retail stores offer experiences that reward customers who visit, future-focused eCommerce brands will likewise thrive through differentiated creative experiences – especially as greater investment in digital technology becomes the norm. 

But while many focus solely on providing convenience to their customers, brands that will truly win are those that aim to further close the online-offline gap through experiential eCommerce.

Experiential eCommerce is a customer-centric strategy that strengthens the bond between brands and consumers through a virtualised shopping experience. Powered by emerging technology such as 3D content, AR/VR, AI, and more, it’s designed for the best possible online experience for discovering and exploring products and purchases online.

How experiential eCommerce boosts consumer confidence

One of the major benefits to experiential eCommerce is it improves buyer confidence. The typical online shopping experience relies on product images or, if you’re lucky, a video that provides a closer look at the product’s uses or features. 

These are useful, but they don’t answer all the questions customers might have about the item – for example, have you ever bought an item only to discover it’s nowhere near the size you expected? Disappointments like these lead to more returns (and more costs for the seller).

Experiential commerce, meanwhile, gives online customers an experience that allows them to engage, interact with, or test the product in a whole new way before purchasing. 

One of the most popular solutions available is augmented reality (AR), which even lets customers “try on” items such as cosmetics, glasses and more – or see how furniture and other items look in their homes. It’s easy to see how this more tactile experience better serves customers and increases their purchase confidence.

Virtual reality (VR) has the potential to unlock similar experiences. Dior has replicated its entire Champs-Élysées store in 3D, and other luxury retailers have followed suit with similar initiatives. 

Such uses of VR are intriguing, though the technology lacks the accessibility of AR, which is baked into major mobile operating systems. Still, VR has had great use in providing in-person experiences at flagship brick-and-mortar retailers – breaking down barriers between offline and online through unique digital experiences – and in B2B contexts such as virtualising wholesale showrooms.

While tech investments are table stakes to succeed in an era of experiential eCommerce, brands that are interested in starting small with their 3D content efforts should check out simple, yet rich experiences such as Google Swirl ads. This is an ad format that lets users examine 3D product models within a display ad on a mobile web page. If they like what they see, they can even expand the ad to engage more.

This format is easy to set up, consisting of just a product model and its parts. But it also offers unique storytelling opportunities. In a case study that Google did for fragrance brand Guerlain’s Swirl campaign, developed in partnership with MediaMonks, it found a 17-point increase in customer purchase intent, three-times higher engagement and a 34% increase in exposure time.

Deliver personalisation and relevance with contextual triggers 

A strength of eCommerce that can’t be understated is its use of personalisation: based on interests, defined needs or previous shopping history, consumers can quickly find the exact product they need on a website, on an app or even to collect in-store. 

And, as explored above, experiential eCommerce opens opportunities to take personalisation and contextual shopping to the next level – even taking some of the more iconic features of brick-and-mortar retail and making them better – online.

Consider the window display as an example. On an eCommerce platform or social commerce app, a fashion retailer can offer 3D shopping displays featuring mannequins or models whose clothing changes depending on the consumer profile, or even change based on time of day and weather.

As users engage, they can check in with either a real or digital sales associate at any time of day – the virtualised enterprise doesn’t have to close at the end of the day. And once consumers have examined and placed a purchase for an item, that trigger can then connect to messaging apps, encouraging customers to share an AR model of the item with a friend – and maybe with a discount coupon attached.

This action shows how important it is for experiential eCommerce to tie into the various digital channels that consumers engage in throughout the day, across the customer decision journey. 

One can imagine how simple content formats such as Guerlain’s can capture consumer attention in the discovery phase, leading them into more robust, immersive and personally tailored experiences that better replicate or augment the in-store experience.

Third-party marketplaces make experiential eCommerce accessible and scalable

Previously, building 3D experiences to this calibre required developing a bespoke app, resulting in a high barrier of entry (no one wants to download a whole app to make an impulse purchase) when seamlessness is so critical to immersive content. Thankfully for brands, third-party eCommerce platforms themselves are driving a lot of innovation in this space by adding immersive features and 3D content to their platforms.

Alibaba’s Tmall recently launched just in time for its 6.18 Mid-Year Shopping Festival. The new feature enables brands to offer a 3D shopping experience to mobile users. In fact, IKEA managed to translate its entire Shanghai Baoshan store to the platform, letting customers enjoy the showroom experience without all of the crowds. Over on WeChat, shopping mall K11 made its 46 stores available for virtual exploration.

These features are some of the latest in support of long-term new retail strategies that build on customers’ desires for highly personalised and intuitive shopping experiences. Supported natively by some of the most popular channels in China, experiential eCommerce has become much more accessible for businesses.

New retail thrives on a unified commerce model

In an infographic – “The 3D Connected Consumer In China” – Forrester senior analyst Wang Xiaofeng notes that: “Most digital business professionals in China are already mobile-centric and leverage borrowed mobile moments well; some are even venturing into emerging tech. But they tend to focus on the technology itself and overlook the business and customer values they can actually deliver through the devices, platforms, and channels that their customers are using.”

One way for brands to better connect with consumers anywhere and everywhere is to take a more unified approach to online and offline commerce, giving touch-points equal weight in your strategy, while also optimising the seamless and omni-channel customer decision journey with a performance-driven mindset. 

Succeeding with this strategy is key to using experiential eCommerce as a creative differentiator, offering an experience that’s not only convenient, but engages customers in new, value-added ways.

There’s been incredible growth in mobile commerce over the years; eMarketer projects that 53.5% of retail sales will be through mobile by 2023. As brands increase their investment in technologies that support mobile consumers, experiential eCommerce will become critical in meeting shoppers’ expectations, increasing confidence and boosting engagement in digital shopping – helping brands differentiate through an unparalleled customer experience.

This article was contributed by Kelly Belchere, senior producer of MediaMonks.