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GUEST COMMENT How the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the adoption of experiential ecommerce technology

Image courtesy of London Dynamics

In retail, adapting to the evolving needs, tastes and habits of customers is critical. 

For decades, technology has been re-setting the bar faster than most businesses can keep up. Even compared to sweeping demographic, economic and political changes, or considering extreme events such as the recent global coronavirus outbreak – nothing in the long term can match technology for changing the way the world lives, works, plays and shops.


In a period of global social distancing, this has become even more apparent. Retailers in every industry will be relying on new uses of technology to keep their businesses afloat. Those with an established digital strategy are undoubtedly better prepared to weather the storm. Others are looking to rapidly upgrade their online experience. 2020 is reshaping the retail industry in ways which will spell permanent changes to consumer behaviour. 


Companies need to look to the bleeding edge of ecommerce innovation and embrace tools that anticipate what customers will want in the post-Covid years ahead.


No more refuge in status quo

Every day, the case for radical change in retail becomes stronger.


Well in advance of any national instructions to practice social distancing retailers were facing massive challenges. ‘Brick and mortar’ retailers have seen falling shop floor traffic as customers gravitate towards the convenience and practicality of online shopping. The proportion of users shopping digitally in the last 12 months was 82% in 2019 (up from 53% in 2008) according to research by the Office of National Statistics. 

While ecommerce has incredible benefits in terms of personalisation and convenience, it cannot match the real world’s ‘try-before-you’ buy advantage. An in-store experience offers a huge range of variables which can be tailored to the customer’s experience, from product placement, customer pathing and checkout. However, as we enter a very different retail era, brick-and-mortar stores will own a very different role in the customer journey.


Social distancing has caused an incredible surge in online shopping, bringing millions of customers forward in a trend towards ecommerce that has been accelerating for years. Salesforce research showed that an astounding 87% of customers begin their shopping journey on a digital channel (2018). The experience that users find online is critical to whether that journey ends in a sale.


Many retail brands, such as B&Q, were quick off the mark to prioritise their digital offering. Not only did they place focus on their delivery service, but a large emphasis was given to ‘click and collect’ allowing the customer greater choice during a time where movement is restricted. 


But for every success story, an unfortunate reality is becoming clear: without a robust and evolving online ecommerce strategy it is hard to imagine a bright future.

Teaching an old ‘show-dog’ new tricks 

Retailers who relied on in-store showcases to sell now must find new ways to let their customers sense, explore and size up their products.


However, the fact that the most common forms of ecommerce offer an entirely flat, browser-based 2D experience has huge limits on its potential. The limitations of a ‘photo and description’ experience will only become more apparent as more customers begin shopping online. Some online retailers can’t compete (or think they can’t compete) in offering customers the opportunity to sense, feel and weigh up products before the purchase decision. It is evident that ecommerce needs to discover a new dimension in order to merge these two worlds.


Mobile-based AR is one of the elements driving the coming revolution in remote retail and it allows retailers to leverage the best of both online and brick and mortar worlds. Smartphones will continue to become more sophisticated and powerful, transforming how we shop wherever we are – at home or even in stores. Tech that embraces smartphone power will be a crucial point of engagement especially when stores re-open with less inventory to accommodate space for distance-conscious customers.


In light of updates to the government’s best-case timeline for relaxing restrictions, innovation and diversification are a price of survival retailers can’t justify putting off. The explosion of online shopping seen for essential products is coming for every other category.


The future is bright, if you can visualise it

The adoption of a step-change in experiential ecommerce technology has been a long time coming. While it’s impossible to predict exactly how the retail industry will change in the next 12 months, one thing is clear: events from the past few months will accelerate every timeline for advancement and digitalisation of the sector.  

By showcasing the next generation of online shopping experience technologies, especially augmented reality, which reflects in-store product visualisation, retailers are on the road towards a richer online experience. 

Even if the pace of change is now much faster than anyone hoped or feared, retail’s future can be a bright one, embracing the best aspects of real-world and online shopping experience.

Michael Valdsgaard is chief executive and founder of London Dynamics 

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