Could virtual storefronts replace brick-and-mortar?

We asked Haroon Qureshi, Lionel Sim and Josefine Billström Raasakka

Retail is a realm constantly redefined by disruption. From sprawling markets to department stores to suburban malls, brick-and-mortar shops have always adapted to suit ever-evolving customer needs. Today, shopping is a borderless experience. Ecommerce sales are predicted to reach $8.1 trillion by 2026, and experts say the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the integration of AI, VR and AR technologies into our daily lives will continue to blur the boundaries between our physical, digital and biological worlds. Is shopping set to go fully digital? How can companies merge virtual and physical elements to create seamless customer experiences? We asked several marketers working in this space to weigh in.

Haroon Qureshi — Head of Experience: Brands, Platforms and Playable Tech at Mindshare

Haroon Qureshi

Online stores have expanded aggressively in recent times — yet just last year, CBRE reported that over 71% of Asia Pacific retailers planned to expand/add new stores, and that under 5% of APAC consumers shop purely online. Physical stores remain alluring because people crave tactile experiences, in-person interactions and instant gratification. To succeed in the future businesses must strike a delicate balance between the convenience of virtual spaces and the sensory richness of physical ones. Possibility is in the artful fusion of virtual and physical elements to create unparalleled consumer shopping experiences. It’s imperative that companies (store/platform owners, marketers) adopt an omni-channel approach to achieve this synergy, integrating online and offline interactions seamlessly. Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) could be used to recreate the tangible aspects of in-store shopping virtually. Virtual try-ons, AR-enhanced product visualisation, gaming, influencers, shoppertainment and interactive online-to-offline experiences are all building blocks of this dynamic duo convergence.

Josefine Billström Raasakka — Founder at The Curious Advisor (ex-Meta)

Josefine Billström Raasakka

Virtual experiences will not replace physical stores, just as physical stores will not replace e-commerce. The convergence of technologies such as augmented/virtual/mixed reality and AI promises to enhance both physical and digital shopping in the coming years.

During my collaboration at Meta with IKEA’s ‘Lilla Äventyret,’ we explored how AR could enrich the in-store experience. Through an augmented treasure hunt, parents and children engaged in an interactive and educational journey, seamlessly blending physical and digital aspects. Similarly, when partnering with Sokos, a division of the Finnish retail group S-Group, we leveraged AR to enable customers to experiment with makeup looks, from the comfort of their homes. Notably, this project demonstrated that AR serves as an effective sales tool, with a remarkable 69% lower cost per acquisition for augmented reality ads compared to traditional campaigns. In summary, AR, VR, and AI will enhance both physical and digital shopping experiences, creating synergy between the two realms.

Lionel Sim — Head of Commercial at Bondee

Lionel Sim

The future of shopping is a seamless hybrid between immersive online experiences and interactive offline touch points. Digitalisation levels the playing field for businesses of all sizes, enabling them to leverage real-time user behaviour and harness physical elements to engage users effectively.  Yet, amidst the tech frenzy, quality customer service and a true understanding of user needs remain crucial for success.

At Bondee, we have observed growing user enthusiasm for personalised avatars in virtual spaces that seamlessly blend with their real-world surroundings. Recently we launched an augmented reality (AR) feature that has elevated people’s online social experiences. This has extended to merchants — we’ve introduced a playful twist in the form of online mystery boxes, allowing merchants to bridge the gap between virtual engagement and physical retail. Imagine unlocking online treasures that guide you to retail stores or reveal exclusive offline promotions. At Bondee, we’re not just redefining online interactions, we’re turning them into exciting real-world adventures.

Featured image: Florencia Viadana / Unsplash