As much as I love buying things online, there’s a lot to like about the in-store shopping experience. Being able to see, touch and try a product in person can play a major role in a purchasing decision. It also helps to have a member of the sales staff handy to answer questions.

But a startup that launched today is hoping to make the online shopping experience a little bit more like the offline one.

IMShopping bills itself as ‘human assisted shopping‘. It’s the brainchild of Prashant Nedungadi, who founded Andale, and has raised $4.7m from SK Telecom Ventures. According to Nedungadi, “Human assistance will create a deeper level of e-commerce satisfaction that doesn’t exist on the Internet today“, providing the same sort of service that consumers are used to offline.

The IMShopping website functions much like other Q&A websites, such as Yahoo! Answers. If you have a shopping-related question, it’s easy to post it and view the responses when they come in. There’s also a Twitter interface. Tweet a question to @imshopping and when an answer is provided, a response will be sent to you. Nifty.

Overall, the IMShopping website is simple and easy-to-use. Even if the idea of an ecommerce-focused Q&A site isn’t entirely original, I definitely think that some consumers will find value in a service like this.

But as for bring a little bit of the brick and mortar experience to the internet, I think that’s probably not the ideal positioning for IMShopping to seek out. There are some major obstacles here:

  • For IMShopping to be truly useful, the recommendations have to be diverse and they have to be credible. That’s a tough challenge. Take the example of a user looking for a recommendation for a gas heater. He was provided with only three suggestions, all from the same brand, by an IMShopper user who we know almost nothing about. This user has answered 165 questions on everything from netbooks to crib bedding. The skeptic in me can’t help but wonder if this user is really answering questions based on personal knowledge and experience or is simply going out and performing web searches to answer questions (which is admittedly the case here). Even if that’s not the case, I have no way to know otherwise. That’s quite a bit different than walking into a store and asking a question of a trained member of the sales staff.
  • Some of the responses don’t inspire confidence. One starts offI am excited to present you with a variety of HD Camcorders.
    Record HD MP4 video and 5.0MP still images with the Sony Webbie HD camera
    “. Another beginsLooking for a tasty grilled sandwich in the comfort of your own home?” They sound too canned to be authentic; indeed, it appears that IMShopping has hired ‘guides‘ to answer questions. That’s probably a necessity to get the site going but when it becomes too obvious, it’s a turn off.
  • According to VentureBeat, IMShopping will generate revenue when recommended products are purchased through affiliate links. This creates a potential conflict, as there’s always the risk that the company will tend to favor product recommendations that lend themselves to an affiliate link, even though a better recommendation or lower-priced retailer may be available.
  • When it comes to big-ticket items, such as consumer electronics, I think the in-store experience is often very critical to closing the sale. According to Forrester, over 50% of the consumers who avoid online shopping do so because they want to see the product first. After all, would you spend $2,000 on a plasma TV sight unseen? At most, I think a service like IMShopping could be part of the research process but that for certain types of purchases, the consumer is still likely to drop by a store to check things out, even if the eventual order gets placed online.

At the end of the day I’m not so sure that we’ll ever replicate the offline shopping experience online and while I think a site like IMShopping can be useful, I believe the biggest improvements to the experience can be made by the retailers themselves. From ratings and reviews to phone sales/support to better product photography to cross-channel integration, if the online shopping experience is ever going to rival the offline shopping experience, it will be the work of the retailers that does it.

Photo credit: Andrew Currie via Flickr.