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What is Virtual Shopping for Retail Stores?
 — February 22, 2021

In their latest report on the state of the retail industry, the Business of Fashion summed up one of the most transformative shifts we’re seeing: ecommerce used to compliment physical stores, but in the future, physical stores will compliment the ecommerce experience. 

It’s already happening. 

Retail brands are shifting their resources and energy into digital, while scaling back their brick and mortar locations and transforming them from distribution centers whose value is based on sales per square foot, into experiential brand touch points. 

And in the middle of this shift to digital-first shopping is virtual shopping — where brands bring the authentic, in-person service usually reserved for physical locations online. 

As the retail industry reshapes itself for a new reality, technologies are emerging and helping merchants of all sizes bring the in-store experience online. But before we jump into the benefits of virtual shopping, what it means for retailers and how you can start using it, let’s first give you a clear definition of what it is. 

What is virtual shopping? 

Virtual shopping is a set of tools (like live chat, video consultations and clienteling) that help retailers bring in-person, one on one service to their online store. The result is an online shopping experience that feels less like you’re browsing a digital catalog, more interactive and engaging. 

For example, in addition to serving customers in-store, retail sales associates can log into their virtual shopping platform, connect with online shoppers via live chat and video, proactively recommend products, create shopping carts, close sales, and even get commissions on those sales. 

Virtual shopping is transforming retail sales associates into omnichannel sales associates who serve customers both in-store and online simultaneously. Through the real-time connections virtual shopping makes possible, shoppers can ask questions, discover products, ask questions and get recommendations from experts while interactively browsing a catalog of products online.

Video calls are an emerging trend in retail. Sales associates can connect with shoppers, give recommendations and close sales from a distance.

Virtual shopping is one of the core technologies leading the charge towards a digital-first shopping environment. With appointment booking capabilities, virtual shopping is also well-positioned to help retailers compel shoppers to visit their stores and continue that brand experience. 

What are the benefits of virtual shopping? 

The benefits of virtual shopping ultimately all add up to one thing: creating a more human way to shop online and make more sales via e-commerce. But let’s take a closer look at the benefits virtual shopping presents for retailers that use the technology. 

1. Higher conversions from chat to purchase 

Brands that empower their teams with virtual shopping tools are seeing incredible benefits when it comes to their bottom line: making more sales to finance their growth. 

For instance, Makeup Forever saw a 30% higher conversion rate when store associates gave personalized product recommendations to customers via live chat. The end result? A 20% lift in online sales during their first six months using Heyday. ‍

Heyday’s AI chat serves shoppers with relevant product recommendations, and connects shoppers with store associates via live chat and video. 

With traditional live chat solutions, human teams end up handling all types of requests. That can lead to a ton of chats that could have been automated, an untenable backlog, and fewer results in terms of sales.

But with a layer of AI chat resolving every chat it can and qualifying conversations before routing them to a human, sales associates talk exclusively to shoppers with purchasing intent when they hop into the live chat or video consultation. 

That keeps your sales teams productive — when they hop into live chat or video, chances are they’re closing a sale and getting commission for their efforts. 

When it blends AI-powered automation and conversation routing with true, personalized service via live chat and video, virtual shopping helps retailers improve their online sales at scale. 

2. Embrace distance selling and grow sales

Shoppers are staying home and not visiting physical stores as much as they used to, and nobody really knows if their taste for in-store shopping will return post-pandemic. How can retailers continue to grow sales via their digital channels? 

Distance selling.

With virtual shopping tools, retailers can keep their teams working, serving customers and closing sales whether they’re in the store, at home, or anywhere in between. 

Gregory Boutte, Chief Client and Digital Officer at Kering, the group behind brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen, is embracing this new, hybrid retail associate work model. 

“One area where we accelerated some efforts on omnichannel is distance sales, making it so a client visiting our e-commerce site can actually interact with sales associates in the store.” Says Boutté. “If a customer says yes to using the feature, a sales associate in the store could chat with the customer, or even do a video and have them show some particular products and even close a sale.” 

One area where we accelerated some efforts on omnichannel is distance sales, making it so a client visiting our e-commerce site can actually interact with sales associates in the store.

But store associates don’t need to be at your physical retail location to use virtual shopping tools. Thanks to Heyday’s product catalog integrations, store associates can recommend products to shoppers via live chat, while store associates working at the physical store can use video chat to quite literally show the products to shoppers. 

The tool is as flexible and lets retailers make the most of their staff, wherever they are physically. 

3. Shoppers want curated experiences 

While some stores are operating at a reduced capacity, others are closed altogether — but that doesn’t minimize shoppers desire for personalized, curated shopping experiences.

With virtual shopping and video consultations, retailers can keep the magic of human interaction alive, even when they’re serving online shoppers. Raphael Abescat, General Manager of Makeup Forever Canada, sees virtual consultations as an essential tool in their digital customer journey. 

“It’s important for shoppers to find the right product for their skin,” he says. “Having virtual consultations is now an essential part of our business and, now, all of our makeup artists are trained to use this channel. Having the ability to guide customers and help them find the right products is a pillar for our digital customer experience.” 

Having virtual consultations is now an essential part of our business and, now, all of our makeup artists are trained to use this channel. Helping customers find the right products is a pillar for our digital customer experience.

Shoppers benefit from the additional context and reassurance that a person-to-person interaction provides, but it’s the positive impact on online sales that makes virtual shopping a win for both retailers and their customers. 

“Bridging the gap between in-store and online is a focal point of our strategy. With Heyday, we can better connect with our massively growing digital audience and grow sales,” says Abescat. 

4. Build lifelong relationships with customers 

Built-in clienteling tools help store associates stay in touch with shoppers even after they complete a sale. Letting them know when a product is back in stock, about new promotions and releases and nurturing that relationship can grow customer loyalty.

5. Drive more customers to your physical store 

With built-in appointment booking capabilities, virtual shopping tools can help store associates take their live chat or video consultations into the real world. 

Invite shoppers to visit the store, immerse themselves in your brand experience, try on products and get that tactile experience that can’t be replicated online. Virtual shopping can help retailers turn website traffic into pre-qualified foot traffic in-store, and schedule the same sales associate that helped them online for their in-store consultation.  

Control your customer experience with virtual shopping

Up until the advent of virtual shopping tools, shopping online was a relatively individual activity. 

You go to a website, browse through a catalog of product categories to find what you’re looking for and, if you like what you see, you add it to your cart and proceed to purchase. 

Finding products that met your needs was ultimately self-driven. You as a shopper needed to do your own research, whether that came in the form of talking to friends, looking up online reviews, or visiting a store to talk to a specialist.

Retailers had control over their website, product images and descriptions, navigation, and other factors — but they could never truly connect with and guide customers as they shop. 

But with virtual shopping, retailers can shape the digital customer experience as much as they do with their experience in-store. 

If a shopper wants to go the traditional route and explore their products alone, they can. But if they want more help, they can get that, too — all without leaving their sofa. 

How to add virtual shopping to your online store 

Now, you might be thinking to yourself that virtual shopping seems complicated to set up. That’s far from the truth! Follow these steps to start using virtual shopping: 

Step 1: Automate what you can 

One of the reasons we see retailers turn off their live chat is because they don’t have enough sales associates or support agents to support the volume of chat requests.

What they’re left with is a backlog of conversations, high first response times and lower CSAT scores as a result. 

Without automation, opening up live chat and video consultations can get out of hand fast. But with a layer of automation resolving most resolving most conversations, retailers can help their teams do more. 

A layer of automation is what prevents virtual shopping via live chat and video from breaking at scale. 

Outside of hiring more people, the solution to the backlog problem is sales and support automation. With an AI chatbot resolving up to 80% of incoming chats, your human teams can give 1-on-1, personal service to the shoppers who want it — without building up a backlog of live chat or video consultation requests.

In short, a layer of automation prevents virtual shopping via live chat and video from breaking at scale. 

Without automation, opening up live chat and video consultations can get out of hand fast. But with a layer of automation resolving most resolving most conversations, retailers can help their teams do more. 

Step 2: Launch live chat and video shopping

Once you’ve set up AI-powered FAQ automation, product search and recommendations, you can get to the fun stuff: opening up the live chat and video floodgates and giving shoppers personalized service from a distance. 

With Heyday, you get an AI chatbot that acts as your first line of your customer service, as well as live chat and virtual shopping tools for both your sales and customer service teams. 

Your human teams will each get their own unified inbox, where they can see all new, ongoing, and resolved live chat and video requests coming in via your ecommerce store, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Google Business Messages.

Step 3: Establish a conversation routing process early 

Conversation routing is a huge part of making virtual shopping scalable – especially for enterprise retailers. 

Conversation routing is when your AI chatbot detects a shopper’s intent in chat (do they want to talk to customer support or a sales associate?) and routes the conversation to the right team in the right department.

That’s how you guarantee that each conversation that makes it to your human teams is relevant, qualified, and that your teams can give the shopper what they’re looking for. 

With most live chat solutions, you need to set up conversation routing rules manually — but Heyday’s advantage is that our AI can detect tens of thousands of retail-specific intents, and route conversations with pinpoint accuracy out of the box. 

Whichever solution you choose, ask your vendor how they handle conversation routing and whether or not you need to get your IT teams involved to set it up. 

Want to know what other questions to ask potential vendors? Download our AI chatbot vendor evaluation checklist for a complete list. 

Step 4: Use insights to improve agent productivity and customer satisfaction

Data helps you make more informed decisions. 

One of the biggest advantages of virtual shopping is the data it produces. That data helps Marketing, eCommerce, Customer Experience and Support teams grow online sales and improve customer satisfaction. 

With Heyday, eCommerce and Marketing teams can see demographic information of shoppers that use chat, what types of products they’re interested in, and which departments they want to have their conversation routed to. 

They can use those insights to market relevant products, create awareness around their promotions, and close more sales via chat. 

Customer Experience and Support teams also benefit from data collected via the conversational AI platform. Whether it’s improving first response times or an agent’s average CSAT score, anchoring their decisions on data keeps decision-making customer-focused and ultimately in line with their organization’s goals.

This rich data set that virtual shopping provides helps retailers visualize the impact of chat on core business KPIs, improve online sales and their customer experience. 

Is virtual shopping right for your retail business? 

One of the biggest challenges retailers are facing since the outset of the pandemic has been how to grow eCommerce sales and redistribute their human teams where they’ll have the greatest impact. 

For brands with an online presence and physical stores, virtual shopping may be the answer. 

With it, they can re-deploy their human teams where they can reach the most customers: online. 

eCommerce used to support physical stores, but now, we’re transitioning to quite the opposite. Shoppers are approaching commerce with a digital-first mindset, and virtual shopping tools can help retailers connect with more customers in a personalized, scalable way.

It’s impossible to predict the future, but in this case, we can look at the plethora of merchants adopting this technology — from SMBs and mid-market brands to multinational behemoths — and see that virtual shopping may very well be a pillar of commerce in the digital age. 

The best part? Adding virtual shopping doesn’t require any coding, and setup is minimal. Contact our team of conversational designers today to explore how virtual shopping can help you modernize your digital customer experience. 

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