Going virtual

On-line shopping will never be quite the sameas the tactile experience of going into a store,but some e-tailers are starting to address this issue.Scott Billings looks at some initiatives that aimto make Internet shopping more enjoyable

Talk to designers about retail and you’ll soon come across terms such as ‘theatre’, ‘experience’ and ‘customer journey’. These elements are part of the allure of a trip to the shops, for many a leisure pastime rather than a practical chore. And with high street retailing such a competitive, cut-throat business, store designers are repeatedly called on to create more absorbing environments, anything to lure the customer away from a competitor’s store.

Yet it is just these 3D design elements – things like materials, finishes, lighting and space, as well as tactile products – that are lacking in the world of on-line retail. Despite this apparent handicap, the value of e-tailing is growing apace while sales on the high street are somewhat in the doldrums. According to a report from Verdict Research, on-line retail spend is forecast to grow by 32 per cent this year to £19.5bn, while off-line sales bump up a mere 1.2 per cent. The report says that an on-line presence will become ‘a much more important differentiator between retail success and failure’.

‘Having an Internet presence is now more important than ever,’ says Neil Saunders, a consulting director at Verdict Research. ‘The future for successful retailers isn’t about choosing between bricks or clicks, it’s about [both].’ Asda recently reached the same conclusion, partly because the likes of Primark and Tesco have stolen a march on the supermarket’s budget clothing line George. In response, George products are to move on-line for the first time.

According to Elmwood London managing director Nicolas Mamier, retail companies take two main approaches to the Web. ‘They can either go for the full-on e-commerce portal, as FCUK has, or they can use the Web as a branding tool, like Paul Smith,’ he says. ‘Some do a bit of both, like Topshop, but for companies with a high-rent, highfootfall street presence there’s always the danger of cannibalising your sales with an on-line shop. This is the big decision they have to make.’

Either way, the high street will not die, claims Saunders. ‘Shopping is a tactile process and for many people it is a leisure activity – on-line retail does not really deliver on those two things,’ he says. Perhaps not, but retailers and digital designers are getting savvy about what the Web lacks over its high street counterparts, especially when it comes to fashion and clothing brands. On a website you can’t try clothes on, put together an outfit or shop with your friends and ask their opinions, for example.

To address exactly these sorts of issues, Otto – owner of the Freemans and Grattan catalogues in the UK – last year launched a dedicated on-line brand called Oli. Digital consultancy Conchango designed a ‘rich’ Internet experience that would replace some of these missing elements. ‘Previously, the catalogues had been supported by a small Web presence. With Oli it’s the other way around: it is primarily an Internet brand supported by a smaller catalogue and they wanted to offer a dressing room-like experience,’ says Conchango digital media consultant Derek Dunlop.

The result is a site that allows shoppers to gather items ‘over the arm’ and place them on a blank canvas, resizing and arranging products to check out an overall outfit. This collection can be mailed to a friend for an opinion and the whole lot sent to checkout with one click. Dunlop says there’s now scope to add live elements, allowing multiple users to discuss and manipulate collections at the same time.

H&M’s response to on-line’s lack of dressing rooms is a series of ‘models’ created by Montreal-based My Virtual Model, whose bodies, hair and skin colour can be adjusted to match your own. Another approach to the lack of physical space on-line is the virtual shopping mall, a model given new momentum thanks to the rise of Second Life. Currently in beta test stage and scheduled to launch later this summer is UK-based Myfaveshop.com. Designed in-house, the site will combine a 3D ‘bespoke’ shop comprised of the buyer’s wish-list of products, with community elements, such as product reviews from friends, also built in. ‘You can manage your products in 2D, but when you look around they are all there in a 360º environment,’ explains Myfaveshop marketing director Ashley Harris.

Whether used as lush branding vehicle, e-commerce-enabled database or full-scale virtual world, a well-considered presence on the Web is essential for retail brands. The design challenge is to make the on-line experience not only as enjoyable as shopping in stores, but also captivating enough to lure consumers to one site among a wild west of cheaper alternatives.

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