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How Virtual Stores Bring the Joy of Discovery to Online Shopping

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The joy of serendipitous discoveries that comes from shopping IRL has proven an elusive experience to replicate online — until now. The pandemic led to the launch of a gamut of virtual store offerings designed to give shoppers a bit of the treasure hunt delights of in-store shopping.

Spanning a variety of retail sectors, these virtual stores are being rolled out by prestige beauty brands like Charlotte Tilbury and even grocery stores like McEwan Fine Foods Don Mills, which launched a 3D virtual grocery shopping portal in Canada. For the holiday season, home décor retailer Cost Plus World Market launched a unique digital experience designed to spark joy among its traditional shoppers and boasting a real in-store layout that allows customers to browse and buy more than 550 holiday products.

The virtual holiday store also offers a storytelling layer of content inspired by some of the influencer partnerships that Cost Plus World Market has forged, encouraging consumers to explore and learn more about creating the perfect gift or decorating a holiday-inspired mantel.

The decision to launch a virtual store was influenced by research revealing that customers missed shopping to simply browse and enjoy. “We do our best to ground all of our marketing in data and insight at World Market, and this execution began the same way: research with our customer panel showed that amidst the pandemic, they desperately missed the joy of discovery of shopping in our stores,” said Kelley Sternhagen, VP, eCommerce, Marketing Analytics and Strategy, Cost Plus World Market in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “While they were able to shop our products via our ecommerce site, there is something special about our brand that comes to life for them in our stores, particularly during the holidays. Observing how other industries were adapting their models to lockdowns — particularly real estate tours — gave legs to the ultimate execution.”

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Cost Plus World Market partnered with global experience company Rightpoint to develop the virtual holiday store, which was built on Matterport’s platform and is accessible from the Cost Plus World Market homepage. The retailer wanted to experiment with an innovative — and fully commercial — retail experience because of the challenges its large assortment presents. “It’s incredibly challenging to ‘curate’ more than 2,500 holiday products in an engaging way within the confines of a traditional product listing page,” Sternhagen said.

The virtual experience allows the customer to literally “walk” the aisles, zoom in on products and get item details by clicking on the 3D images. “In that way, it feels very much like a traditional retail experience,” Sternhagen said. “On the other hand, we’ve infused the very best of an ecommerce experience into the store, allowing customers to view multiple images (including in-situation), hold items in their virtual bag for as long as they need and get styling tips and tricks, all from the comfort and safety of their own couch.” 

Sternhagen terms the virtual store a success that is resonating with customers and receiving positive feedback. “Customers are spending more time on the site and using this experience as a safe way to browse, then collecting their items via shipping, contactless curbside pickup or quickly and safely in our stores,” she added.

In fact, Cost Plus World Market is planning for another virtual execution this spring that will feature one of its larger seasonal assortments. “We’re also considering a more evergreen approach for bringing the delight of our physical stores to life digitally,” said Sternhagen.

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