This week Ted Baker has launched an online virtual store, which uses 360 degree panoramic photography to allow users at home to walk around its Shoreditch branch and browse through many racks of designer clothes.

Picture courtesy of Marketing Week.

There are no other customers around to bump into, no shop assistant to ask you if you need any help every five minutes, no closing times, no charge for car-parking charges and best of all, you can walk around the luxury retailer in whatever tatty excuse for pyjamas you spent half the day in.

This is also a fascinating next step into a world where offline and online are seamlessly integrated and sensorial experiences become a vital tool for brands wishing to differentiate from each other. 

Recently Samsung’s head of European retail Vincent Slevin stated that conventional high street stores must embrace digital and virtual reality to survive, and that “shopping mall locations are the future as they are more sensorial experiences and allow for experiential marketing.”

More and more retailers are introducing these elements to varying degrees of success. Under Armour has stores that are 80% storytelling experience and 20% commerce, where customers enter a large, dark empty room and watch a seven-minute long advert before purchase. Marriot Hotels has been experimenting with Virtual Reality booths to offer newly married couples a more interactive taste of its honeymoon packages that goes beyond the brochure.

Obviously these experiential, or sensorial experiences are easier to achieve in the real world, but for online retailers it’s a trickier thing to achieve. How do you make the digital experience more tangible, more ‘real world’?

This is essentially what Ted Baker is trialling with its virtual store.

The instructions are pretty straightforward, just use your mouse and skip along the arrows on the floor as you would Google Street View.

Zoom into the racks, then when you find a product you like, click on it and be taken to a pop-out product description with a direct link to the ecommerce store.

The whole experience works really well, the photography of the store is gorgeously high-definition, movement around the store is fluid and intuitive, and every product featured is clickable, whether available or not.

This is certainly the closest a retailer has come to providing a high street experience online.

However this also raises many questions…

Who is this for?

I would suggest that this is most useful for customers who love high-end fashion and the in-store experience of browsing for the sake of browsing, but who can’t physically access the stores they would enjoy visiting. 

What benefits does this have over visiting the ‘normal’ Ted Baker ecommerce site?

It’s a totally different experience, and although it’s made as convenient as possible with clickable products and smooth interactivity, the ecommerce site is still easier to use. Especially for customers who know what they want when they arrive and use the standard navigation and search to find it.

Again, the virtual store is just a more novel way to browse. 

Is it tech just for the sake of tech?

Well, yes and no. Obviously it’s good publicity for the brand as it is increasingly being seen as pioneers in digital integration, and by leading the way hopefully it’s inspiring other retailers to do the same.

Whatever your own initial interest in Ted Baker’s virtual store, you may struggle to see the point and question whether you’d return. There is also no visible link on the standard ecommerce website, so if it wasn’t for the marketing websites you read, you may never have found it.

The practicalities are interesting too. If stock on the shop-floor is continuously being refreshed then how often will they have to re-photograph the entire store? The upkeep of a virtual store would therefore be a logistical nightmare for brands like H&M or Topshop, where new product lines are being introduced everyday.

Does this improve the customer experience?

The arrival of the virtual store also brings into question what benefits it has for the consumer. If the true goal of digital transformation is to provide best possible customer experience whether online or offline, then what is the purpose of Ted Baker’s endeavor?

Perhaps budgets are better off being spent in virtual tools that offer practical solutions for online shopping problems.

ASOS has a tool called Virtusize that allows customers to compare the specific measurements of an item they are looking to buy with an item they already own, displaying and overlaying 2D silhouettes of both garments so customers can more accurately compare sizes and choose the item that would fit them best.

This has reduced fit-related returns by up to 50%.

Running Warehouse similarly reduced fit-related returns by 23% by introducing the shoefitr app, which allows customers to find more accurate information about the shoe size they need using 3D imaging technology.

All of this is not to say that the Ted Baker virtual store isn’t worthwhile and who knows what brilliant innovation this will inspire, it’s just that a larger focus should be placed on genuinely helping the customer with technology instead of merely impressing them.