Retailers Turn to Virtual Tours during the Pandemic

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Retailers Turn to Virtual Tours during the Pandemic

By Thad Rueter - 05/01/2020
Mill 77 is one merchant recreating the store experience online
Retailers are putting store experiences online during the pandemic

With most stores still closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, retailers eager to keep their customer base and keep up customer interest are turning to virtual experiences.

One of the most recent examples comes from Mill 77 Trading Company in Massachusetts. The home furnishings seller operates a 15,000-square-foot showroom that usually serves to attract and entice in-person shoppers, at least in normal times. But the physical location has been shut down for two months. Though Mill 77 launched an e-commerce site in March, the retailer still wants to do more to keep its name and appeal fresh in the minds of former, future and potential customers as most economies stay mostly closed.

That’s why Mill 77 has launched what it calls a “virtual 3D retail tour of their showroom.” The feature offers the best method during this pandemic for interested shoppers to feel as though they are walking through that showroom, perhaps even giving some of them the feeling that they are in an old-fashioned and relatively expansive furniture warehouse. It might just be an imitation of the real thing, but for a small retailer that has already had to lay off 12 employees – the first Mill 77 job losses in a decade – even the virtual experience can pay dividends.

"When we were mandated to shut down in March, we tackled putting up a retail website, but we knew long term that wouldn't be enough,” said Mill 77 owner Gary Bergeron. “We have always believed in creating a walk-through experience in our showrooms and this 3D tour is a virtual extension of that. We will launch the next 2 showrooms within a month.” Other home furnishing retailers have launched similar experiences this year.

Virtual tours, and other such tools that are often called “experiential” or “immersive” retail, were starting to find some footing well before the pandemic. A big part of the reason stems from improving technology. Online connections have become more efficient as mobile devices became ubiquitous. Retailers have increasingly turned to geolocation to better understand consumer behavior and to craft personalized offers. And while augmented reality (AR) is still in its infancy when it comes to retail, many merchants are indeed planning for the AR future while experimenting with higher-definition imaging software and associated tools.

But the rise of these more immersive experiences – whether delivered online, via mobile devices or inside physical stores – also has to do with the changing world of retail and shifting consumer behavior. Challenged by the rise of e-commerce and the decline of traditional malls and shopping trips, merchants of nearly all types face increasing pressure to provide a fuller experience to consumers no matter where and how they shop. That can involve something as relatively simple as creating a virtual showroom as Mill 77 did or, say, providing digitally-centric entertainment to go along with shopping – such a tie-ins to movies involving comic book superheroes.

More retailers and brands are getting into the act. Build-A-Bear provides a good recent example of that. To help build customer interest during the pandemic, the company has launched a program called Workshop Wednesdays. Each week, the retailer offers recipes for easy-to-make snacks, DIY-craft ideas, coloring sheets, story time, games and other activities. Build-A-Bear encourages customers to share creations with #WorkshopWednesdays or upload them directly to www.buildabear.com/celebearate for the chance to be featured on buildabear.com or the Build-A-Bear social channels. 

And even with its U.S. stores closed, Build-A-Bear is using its online site to replicate the in-store experience. Shoppers go online pick their new stuffed animal, add scents & sounds, dress them, and make a special wish on the heart. 

Pandemic or not, retailers will continue to seek ways to offer fuller, more memorable and revenue-enhancing experiences to consumers.