It all started with a request from Lululemon to bring the power of a mobile application into the store environment. The apparel retailer’s online customers could browse for products across its entire inventory, and the company saw big advantages in enabling that same experience for shoppers in the store.
“They wanted to offer it in-store for people to view, so everything they had available online could now be showcased in the store, and the customer could walk up and know exactly what they have in the back of the store or anywhere else in their inventory,” says Mo Malek, CEO of Virtual Visions.
From there, Virtual Visions launched with the idea of creating a product that could tap into the benefits of online shopping — digital signage, an “endless aisle” of products, inventory availability and product recommendations — to offer bricks-and-mortar customers a better experience.
“It creates that bridge between online and offline, enabling offline to become much more powerful,” Malek says. Smart displays and related technologies make every product accessible to store shoppers, even if their desired item isn’t available in the back stockroom.
“You make the journey into the store and now you never have to be turned back to say, ‘I’ll just buy it online later,’” Malek says.
Once a customer has reviewed the product catalog and selected an item, retailers can use the Virtual Visions platform to fine tune where the buying process goes from there. Some brands give shoppers the ability to sign up for text or email alerts when the product is back in stock. Alternatively, customers might opt to send themselves a link so they can easily buy the item online at their convenience.
In other cases, a sales associate accesses a hidden bar code on the smart display that allows the customer to purchase the product in the store — whether it’s in stock locally or not — and have it shipped to their house. The buyer enjoys a better in-person shopping experience and the brand sees fewer people leave without completing purchases.
For retailers, there’s an even more powerful part of the story. “When someone goes in and clicks on an item and it’s not available in the store, you’re immediately getting needed data about what customers are looking for but not getting,” Malek says. If a particular line of pants is repeatedly viewed, it tells the brand that the item is becoming more popular. Inventory levels and regional availability can then be adjusted to take advantage of demand.
Malek says it’s an improvement over the current method, where retailers often rely on associates to remember which out-of-stock products are most requested.
Virtual Visions makes more data available through the use of digital fitting rooms and other interactive tools. Retailers gain critical insight into the items that make it to the changing room but are never purchased. “Why is that?” Malek says. “Was it a fit issue? A look issue? These are all valuable things that can now be studied.” In the online realm, every click is recorded, every browsing session analyzed. But when it comes to bricks-and-mortar shoppers, “You don’t know anything about 90 percent of your clientele. Now you can capture that information in the store, too.”
Malek believes many brands are still struggling to digitize their bricks-and-mortar assets. “We don’t want them changing the sales experience,” Malek says of retailers. “We just want to add to it, to make it more efficient and digitize it to make it easier for the consumer to purchase.”
Endless aisle and other interactive tools are particularly helpful in sectors such as jewelry, where it’s expensive to stock each store with every available size and shape of diamond earring, for example. Using a quick virtual try-on, the brand “can show either live or virtually what the item would look like to help the sale,” Malek says.
As retailers expand their digital horizons, Malek says the focus at Virtual Visions is on creating a customized experience. “We’re not just selling you a piece of hardware or software saying, ‘This is it and this is how it works, and you have to train your staff to figure it out.’” Every brand has its own vibe. “We’ll blend it,” he says, “so it’s customized to your operations and the hardware looks like it fits within your stores.”
Julie Knudson is a freelance business writer who focuses on retail, hospitality and technology.