The current pandemic has paused the present, requiring businesses to focus on the future. In no industry is this more apparent than retail – physical distancing and capacity regulations, along with social aversion to in-person gatherings, have created obstacles that threaten retail’s viability, especially among retailers who rely on a high-touch in-store experiences.

Strangely, the key to retail’s future may be looking into its past.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. began its journey to becoming the world’s largest retailer in the 1890’s by creating a virtual solution to overcome the physical limitations of in-store retail. Society was largely rural, which meant long journeys to general stores for a limited selection of goods. The Sears catalogue allowed for customers to view, compare, and price its products, regardless of physical location. The catalogue’s wide selection of goods and level of detail was unprecedented, quickly turning readers into loyal customers and driving Sears’ growth.

Of course, in our current situation, Amazon presents a solution to the challenges of in-store retail, but only for mass-produced, undifferentiated products. How will retailers who have built their businesses around the showroom experience remain profitable without customers visiting their stores?

The solution for these retailers will be virtual showrooms – realistic and immersive online experiences that allow visitors to customize products, add features, and compare prices in real time. Large corporations such as Ford, Ikea, and Nike have spent the last decade using their considerable resources to build product configurators, virtual showrooms, and augmented reality applications to take the buying experience completely online. The challenge for mid-sized retailers in Waterloo Region will be to develop this technology in a cost effective manner to compete with multinationals.

Imagine that you own a furniture store. You are fully aware that your target market is spending more time online, especially when making buying decisions. However, when comparison shopping, the Ikea website allows your would-be customers to design a complete living room set, based on the dimensions and aesthetics of their homes while your site offers static images of individual pieces.

To compete, we must re-imagine the process. Visitors who can build custom products, share design ideas, and interact with your staff will turn into customers. Just as in the early days of Sears, forward-thinking businesses who can develop virtual solutions to new physical restrictions will survive, and those who can astonish customers online will thrive!

At NeuStyle Software & Systems, our goal is to sustain businesses in Ontario by using our software development skills to bring the showroom experience online. We believe that every step of the customer experience can remain interactive and stunning – ensuring consumer dollars and local businesses remain in the region.

 

This article will appear in the 2020 Q3 edition of Exchange Magazine, available online and in print June 22, 2020.

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