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Virtual Store Openings Tease the Future of Shopping

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Virtual stores have come a long way since 2016 when eBay and Australian department store Myer launched the first virtual reality (VR) department store.

Back then, shoppers browse over 12,500 Myer items through “shopticals,” or specially designed VR viewers. Smart technology would suggest other items based on users’ original selections as participants moved throughout the space.

Today, new advancements can achieve similar capabilities without using shopticals or any other barriers to entry.

In November, Kontoor Brands-owned Lee and Wrangler’s first virtual stores offered consumers a more interactive approach to online shopping. Shoppers enter a dedicated website to access a three-dimensional digital version of stores to further explore and purchase products. Customers navigate the stores by clicking on arrows, while clickable icons on garments reveal more product information. Other features include artwork that plays the brand’s latest campaign video. The stores feature each brands’ top-selling items and current seasonal styles rotated periodically.

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“Digital evolution is a critical component of our growth strategy as we enhance the overall omnichannel consumer experience,” said Christopher Reid, vice president and general manager of global digital at Kontoor Brands. “Through these new virtual stores, we are offering consumers a more immersive experience with our products and the opportunity to engage with our brands in a curated store experience that brings to life the unique characteristics of each of our brands.”

Enhancing the brands’ digital strategy was a major talking point during Investor Day in May 2021, when CEO Scott Baxter described Reid’s appointment as crucial to the company’s continued success. Digital initiatives included partnerships with the online channels at Amazon, Walmart and Kohl’s, and investing in a new market-leading e-commerce platform, enhancing demand generation capabilities and updating its websites to improve the path to purchase. Through these initiatives, Kontoor plans to add $150 million in revenue in the next three years.

Levi’s debuted “computer vision” that month so consumers can use images instead of words to search for products on its e-commerce site. The brand also ramped up its artificial intelligence (AI) and automation efforts across the site to personalize online shopping, delivering search results tailored to the user’s previous interactions.

Offering virtual capabilities does more than just provide consumers with a more engaging way to shop.

A new study published in the American Marketing Association’s Journal of Marketing Research showed that touching something physically or virtually can increase a shopper’s perceived value of a product. Participants in the study wore a VR headset that gave them a 360-degree view of a virtual store, which mirrored a brick-and-mortar retail space. A portion of users were able to view their virtual hand reach out to touch a shirt, while another portion simply saw a cursor appear over the product. When the study participants were asked how much they would pay for the top, those who saw a hand touching the shirt were willing to pay an average of 33 percent more than those who did not.

This is promising news for those in the fashion industry migrating to the VR space. To gear up for the back-to-school season last year, American Eagle debuted its AE x Snapchat AR Jeans Guide so users could view jeans in augmented reality. The feature provided a way for users to twist and turn jeans and receive information on specific fits, washes and styling advice, as well as the option to buy.

Over the holiday season, Hollister and others ventured into the realm through Snapchat’s AR Shopping Lenses, a feature on the app that recreates the in-store shopping experience and provides ways for customers to purchase physical products. On Black Friday, Snapchat’s “Snap Holiday Market” virtual store let users browse real products and deals through different sections of the app. The social media app estimates that 75 percent of its active monthly users—which totaled 500 million in December—use its Lens feature.

Digital initiatives encourage users to experience a more engaging form of shopping that goes beyond the limits of a physical store, and more is on the way for brands and retailers looking to accommodate the shift.