3 min read

Recreating the Department Store Experience Online

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Department stores are in a class all their own when it comes to retail, offering a unique shopping experience. Part of this comes from the sheer size and breadth of scope that department stores offer; no other class of retailer features customers wandering multitiered stores with square footage rivalling a warehouse to find fashion, beauty, home furnishing, shoes, electronics, and even toys all under one roof. What’s more, the format also enables large-scale promotional events to support clienteling and other unique options.

However, they’re not without their problems, as the high-profile shuttering of most Sears locations (including all their Canadian stores) demonstrates. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for success, but department stores looking to avoid the same fate need to focus on finding innovative ways to recreate their unique experiences online, lest they fall prey to stagnation.

Living Up to Expectations

Sales associates are by no means the exclusive domain of department stores, but they are still the live, beating heart of them. It doesn’t matter whether a customer is going to Walmart or Macy’s, they want access to friendly and helpful service if needed. Even warehouse retailers like Costco, where customer service isn’t exactly a top priority, still has minimum service standards that must be met. Providing the same level of live service that clients have come to expect but in the digital world is a must for any department store looking to update itself for the 21st century.

However, it’s important to implement these virtual services in a strategic way. You should have an incredibly, exceptionally, almost-impossibly good reason for shelling out a small fortune for custom tech. Instead, remember there are plenty of ways to connect your customers to your associates using existing applications. However, even when it comes to applications, your decisions need to be strategic. Make sure whichever service you go with doesn’t just connect online customers to live associates, it should come loaded with other useful retail features like guided selling with an integrated recommendation engine, a product catalog with robust search options, and customer management options that let you onboard live customers into your online environment quickly and easily.  

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Fashion Forward

Again, while not exclusive to department stores, the fitting room is nevertheless an important part of the department store experience. After all, why go to American Eagle, Tommy Hilfiger, and the Levi’s store to try on jeans when you can grab one pair of each from the racks at your nearest Bay store and try them on there?

This is why department stores should be investing in virtual fitting rooms for their digital stores. Virtual fitting rooms are powered by artificial intelligence and augmented reality to layer products over live images of the customer, allowing them to “try on” the item without ever needing to actually wear it in the real world. The technology has found traction among fashion customers, as the market for the virtual fitting rooms is expected to grow to $6.5 million dollars by 2025 according to Fashion United. Clearly online shoppers are hungry for the service, so department stores need to jump on the bandwagon sooner than later.

Just remember that the technology uses AR (Augmented Reality) rather than VR (Virtual Reality). A VR setting often requires the shopper to use an avatar or digital image whose dimensions will not match your live AR equivalent. VR’s great for letting clients pick up and examine virtual versions of a blender, but trying on clothes requires live imaging, not virtual.

Events Make for Evangelists

Eventing is where department stores can really shine compared to their smaller siblings in general retail. They have the square footage, the contacts, and general capacity to create all sorts of surprising and compelling events for their customers. New product launches, fashion shows, and beauty events are all just a few of the events department stores have been known to put on, and they’re definitely experiences department stores will want to offer in the growing virtual world or metaverse.

Events are particularly powerful because, with the right application, they can build buzz and brand value both online and off, simultaneously. Live product launches are good. Virtual product launches are good. But live-streaming a product launch into a virtual space so that live customers can buy the product immediately while virtual attendees can instantly add it to a basket builder? That’s not good, that’s great. Just make sure your virtual clients have a way to connect with live associates in case they need assistance.

The Takeaway

As the Sears situation demonstrated, despite their sheer size and sizeable brand recognition, department stores are vulnerable to many of the same market forces as other retailers. As Insider’s Erin McDowell noted, while the growth of competitors like Walmart and Amazon were certainly part of Sears woes, it was ultimately innovative stagnation that brought about their precipitous fall from the top. Getting on board with virtual shopping and recreating the unique experiences of live department store shopping in an online environment is among the most valuable corporate-culture shifts department stores can make if they want to remain relevant in increasingly competitive and fast-paced online retail marketplaces.

Salesfloor is enabling leading department stores to bring their signature in-store experiences to online shoppers. Let us show you how the Salesfloor platform's Virtual Shopping, Clienteling, and Sales Automation features increase average order value, decrease returns, and keep customers coming back time and again.


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