Five ways to provide immersive and informative virtual browsing experiences to build consumer purchase confidence, ultimately increasing chance of sales, mitigating returns and providing more engaging retail

In the midst of our current digital acceleration, consumers are shopping online more than ever before. For evidence, one need look no further than Target and Walmart's recent earnings calls, where the big box retailers reported that digital sales were up 195% and 97% respectively in the 2nd quarter.

While virtual consumer journeys promote shopper safety and convenience, the inability to touch, feel and experience actual products creates numerous challenges as well. For one, retailers often struggle with lack of confidence, particularly when it comes to categories like beauty, home goods and apparel, which can lead to cart abandonment or an increased number of returns.

In order to overcome the challenges of digital browsing, brands are exploring new ways to maximize consumers’ assurance in their purchases and mitigate risks associated with online (and in-store) sales made in the absence of being able to test or try on items in person. From real-time peer-to-peer shopping parties and virtual window shopping to one-on-one video consultations and live-streamed events, innovative tools and tech-based services are helping retailers provide their customers with the immersive journeys and informed decision-making processes that they expect. Identified in PSFK's research, here are five trending ways to provide experiential e-shopping journeys that build consumer confidence and trust.

Peer Reviewed—In an effort to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace, brands are looking to encourage more audience engagement post-purchase and make customer voices a larger part of the shopping experience. To do so, brands are tapping into their loyalty programs and social channels to engage high-value customers, inviting them to share user-generated content in the form of ratings and reviews—and in turn delivering authenticity through unbiased opinions. Xiaohongshu, a China-based social media, ecommerce and lifestyle platform, invites members to share images and videos of their product experiences as well as reviews. Closing the loop, users can order products that they like on the same platform after seeing reviews, then share their own experience.

Social Inspiration—Amid extended shutdowns and a changing store environment, consumers looking to replicate the social aspect of shopping are seeking out private group forums and virtual co-shopping platforms as a means to connect. To provide customers with a virtual peer-to-peer experience, brands are leveraging social media platforms and tech solutions to create virtual micro-communities where fans can interact safely, and in real-time. And considering the skyrocketing usage of social media in 2020, leveraging user-generated content from these platforms makes perfect sense. Cherie, for instance, is a mobile beauty platform that encourages members to share their opinions on makeup, haircare and skincare topics, providing honest and unbiased product reviews that consumers can trust, as well as, analyzing members' photos and making personalized recommendations.

Virtual Showrooms—With physical stores closed, the act of casually browsing through aisles and racks has been taken away. While shoppers can still stroll through images online, some of the serendipity and surprise is lost. In an effort to recreate that experience, retailers and brands are experimenting with ad hoc conversations with store staff and immersive platforms that allow remote shoppers to discover and learn about products in new ways. French luxury brand Balmain, for example, created an immersive virtual showroom to debut its latest collection, even making an avatar of its head designer to meet and walk viewers through the wares while explaining the story behind them to give visitors an intimate experience.

Live-Streamed Shopping —With more shopping and marketing occasions shifting to digital-first models, brands are finding success with live shopping streams that bring together education, entertainment and social interactivity to mirror the best of events and in-store retail—take Taobao, Alibaba's live-streaming platform, which reported a 719% spike in the number of first-time merchants selling via the site between January and February 2020. L'Oréal, beauty conglomerate known for staying ahead of the curve, is also tapping into the live trend, helping its group brands like NYX Cosmetics enable real-time ecommerce during their online events, and further incentivizing viewer engagement through exclusive offers and opportunities to interface with the host. 

Concierge Shopping—Building on the popularity of on-demand expert interaction, brands are creating systems through which consumers can virtually schedule professional appointments in advance. Tanger Factory Outlets, for one, are leveraging the trend by offering a virtual shopper service that helps remote customers browse through the outlet's various brands and retailers to find the best products. Once their selections are made, onsite shoppers do the heavy lifting for them, letting customers retrieve items curbside or have them delivered. 

This is just a selection of the trends PSFK analysts identified in research on how to create browsing experiences that maximize consumer purchase confidence & minimize risk—check it out here