‘Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’. Whatever your view on the outcome of the strategy that saw most of the population confined to barracks, the result for physical retailers has been calamitous. 

Only relatively recently have people really begun ‘shopping’ once more and even then in a fairly piecemeal manner. 

For many, lockdown shopping boiled down to a computer and staring at endless pages of stuff. The final word in the preceding sentence is used advisedly because, for the most part, online shopping is the digital equivalent of looking at a catalogue that seems to have no end. You click through page after page after page until fatigue sets in and you may even give the whole thing up as a bad job. 

“Very few online retailers have made any kind of effort to make shopping via a laptop more like shopping as we experience it in a store”

The obvious question is why does it have to be like this? We are forever being told how physical merchants should endeavour to make their stores more web-connected and digital-friendly and to an extent that is what has happened. 

Not much of the kind can be seen when viewed from the other end of the telescope. To date, very few online retailers have made any kind of effort to make shopping via a laptop more like shopping as we experience it in a store

Yet some are experimenting with what is possible. Italian jeans brand Diesel recently unveiled a website for those who are buying its stock for resale. It has a showroom in Milan and those visiting the site are confronted by a 3D virtual avatar of the space, complete with entrance and a room where styles are arranged around the perimeter and on virtual mannequins in the mid-shop. 

Diesel

Diesel’s new website mimics a physical store

Diesel

Product hovers in the display on Diesel’s online outlet

The idea is simple: take an online walk around and browse as you see fit; it’s just like fashion shopping. The only real difference is that the perimeter styles appear to float there and when it comes to the shoe area, the styles also hover above their virtual display plinths. 

Something similar is on the verge of being launched by French fragrance brand Lancôme (it will be active for about a month from today) for those browsing its wares in Singapore. 

This time it’s a shop for shoppers rather than purchasing professionals, but otherwise, the principle is the same. The site allows those wishing to do so to browse the range in an alternative world. This may not exist, but it does a pretty good 3D job at convincing the visitor of its veracity (right down to the ‘personality test’). 

What all of this means is that, just like a physical shop, decisions have to be taken about what goes where and, ultimately, what makes it to the sales floor. As such, it takes much of the legwork (as it were) out of online shopping as the near-endless choice is both tiresome and wearying. 

Both ‘shops’ are interesting because the view has clearly been taken at Lancôme and Diesel that shoppers, professional or otherwise, like the idea of browsing and that it’s a natural thing to do when seeking fab gear or wanting to smell good. 

“Catalogues are fine but physical shops are better. If online operators can clear this virtual hurdle, offline merchants had better watch out”

It is perhaps also pertinent to remark that at a moment when ‘going to the shops’ is still treated with a certain amount of suspicion by large numbers of people, offering a little online retail therapy that bears a passing resemblance to the ‘real’ thing is an opportunity waiting to be realised. 

This is a new trend that is only just being tried out, but it seems reasonable to expect that we will seem more of that ilk in the months to come and it could even make online shopping ‘fun’ by providing ‘experience’. 

Catalogues are fine but physical shops are better. If online operators can clear this virtual hurdle, offline merchants had better watch out because their major advantage and point of difference from the webworld could quickly be swept away.