This post was written by Brock Cardiner, Content Director for our friends at HERO®, and then updated by Alexis Damen.
Kristen LaFrance, Head of Resilient Retail, summed up the retail industry during the latest installment of Humans of Commerce: “It’s no longer ecommerce versus retail. Instead, it’s all about building ecommerce within retail within ecommerce to offer a holistic customer experience.”
But how can brands close that gap and ensure online shoppers are receiving an authentic, personalized experience, just like they would in-store?
Enter virtual shopping and virtual clienteling, where IRL meets URL.
As the industry faces unprecedented changes, certain technologies have emerged as powerful tools to help brands deliver the in-store experience online.
But before we get into the benefits of virtual shopping and clienteling, let’s get a better understanding of what these new strategies mean in retail. You can use the table of contents below to jump to a specific section.
Table of Contents
What is virtual shopping?
In the simplest terms, virtual shopping bridges the gap between online and in-store, bringing human connection to ecommerce. The result is a true omnichannel experience that seamlessly merges online and brick-and-mortar.
An associate working in-store, at home, or at head office can instantly connect with online customers via text, chat, or video. Through this real-time connection, shoppers can ask questions, virtually try on products, and get recommendations from a product expert while also browsing the entire online catalog of merchandise.
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Virtual shopping is also helping secure the future of physical stores. The impact of lockdown can still be felt and virtual shopping is helping brick-and-mortar retailers convert more online customers to in-store foot traffic.
Customers are using online sessions with store associates to scope out product choices before leveraging physical stores to complete purchases, helping to ensure brick-and-mortar commerce remains alive and well.
What is clienteling in retail?
Clienteling is when you or your store associates engage with shoppers to provide a personalized experience. Virtual clienteling enables you to offer customers the same one-on-one experience they expect in-store, but online.
The difference between customer service and clienteling
With customer service, store associates tend to passively serve online customers who contact you if they need help.
On the other hand, you and your sales staff can use clienteling tools to proactively engage with shoppers as they browse your online store, offering the same level of personalized service customers expect in-store, through chat or video calls.
What does virtual clienteling mean for retail associates?
Virtual clienteling is changing the store associate’s role. Gone are the days where their key function is greeting customers in-store, merchandising product displays, and selling products in-person. Their role is fundamentally omnichannel now.
With virtual shopping and clienteling apps, store associates are transforming into white-glove service providers capable of proactively engaging with customers online and in-store, and earning commissions for selling on each channel.
It’s helping to keep retail professionals employed as the retail landscape continues to evolve and boosting employee happiness as virtual clienteling allows sales associates to work more flexibly from home.
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11 benefits of virtual shopping and virtual clienteling
1. Ability to connect with customers in a way retail giants can’t
Your advantage over ecommerce giants like Amazon is the ability to connect with customers and add a human touch. Virtual shopping and clienteling will help you achieve this.
For example, a shopper may choose to order online and ship directly to their home, but with virtual clienteling, customers can start a chat or video conversation during the buying process to experience the same level of service they usually get in-store.
This elevates the customer experience to VIP level, allowing you to engage with customers in real-time at their convenience. Moreover, you’ll be able to meet with online customers that you may have never been able to meet before.
"Brands build loyalty, not products," shared Étienne Mérineau, Senior Director of Marketing at Heyday, in our Future of Commerce Report. "Social commerce is definitely an opportunity for brands to reclaim their destiny by owning the customer experience and the relationship with customers, versus selling on Amazon, where price is king and your brand is an afterthought.
Providing this level of service also lets you give shoppers information about product availability and fit before they come into your store to try merchandise in-person. You’ll get to know your customers better and provide the best service experience across all channels.
2. Adding a human touch can increase sales and average order value
Brands tapping into the power of virtual shopping are seeing remarkable results. Credo Beauty has seen up to a 21-times increase in online conversions compared to shopping unassisted in just the last few months.
Additionally, you can see in real-time what shoppers are browsing as they move around the website, providing a perfect opportunity to share recommendations that can be added to their cart. Through this type of personalized virtual consultation, you can upsell and cross-sell in the same way you would in-store, and customers routinely spend up to 70% more.
Virtual shopping even has an impact on foot traffic and can drive pre-qualified leads in-store: one in three customers go in-store after interacting with a sales associate online.
“One in three customers go in-store after interacting with a sales associate online.”
For example, let’s say a shopper chats with a store associate on a video call. They’re shown t-shirts and want to try on different sizes. The store associate can invite them in-store, book an appointment, and continue serving them IRL. Only now, they have opportunities to cross-sell and upsell more products in person.
3. You can create an omnichannel shopping experience
Virtual clienteling and shopping allow you to own the commerce experience end to end. You can create a seamless journey from your online store to your physical retail location. And adding virtual clienteling to your omnichannel retail strategy brings more product discovery to ecommerce.
This approach lets you meet customers where they are, and you’ll be there to help them in the same way you would in-store.
4. Capabilities to centralize your product stock and reduce in-store inventory
Implementing a virtual shopping strategy may mean you need less stock in-store. This is referred to as showrooming. Customers can shop in person, but a limited amount of inventory is available at your retail store. Instead, it’s held at a centralized location, either a warehouse or an order fulfillment center, and then all orders (in-store and online) are shipped from one location.
For example, a shopper may start a chat while they’re browsing your ecommerce store. You’ll be able to provide assistance, make product recommendations, and add a personal touch, and they can complete their purchase online. Then you can ship their order from the same central location.
5. You can keep business booming—no matter where store teams are
With virtual shopping, you’ll be able to keep selling whether you’re working from your store, home, or office. Many retailers have seen incredible success using virtual shopping platforms from home. If you have a team, you can provide the tools and resources your associates need to give customers the confidence to buy when brick-and-mortar locations are closed.
You can also operate a dark store. This is when your retail store functions as an office and order fulfilment center. You or your sales staff can manage virtual selling and customer service from inside the store, but it’s not open to the public.
During the lockdown in early 2020, CEO of Credo Beauty Dawn Dobras commented: “If you had told me six weeks ago that our business would be doing this well, I’m not sure I would have believed it. Not only are we seeing off-the-chart results with virtual selling, but we’ve been able to keep all our employees on staff, something that we’re very proud of as a values-driven company.”
“We’ve been able to keep all our employees on staff.”
Best of all, no matter where your or your associates are working from—in-store, HQ, or from home—store teams get the credit for the sale, regardless of where the final transaction takes place.
6. You’ll help create more retail job opportunities
Virtual shopping and clienteling apps don’t only help you stay afloat and keep your associates on staff. This technology is also creating new job opportunities in retail and more earning opportunities for sales staff.
With features like shoppable stories, store associates can create and curate videos customers can view and then click through straight to the product or collection pages. Or shoppers can use it as a springboard to start a chat or video with the associate. When the customer completes the order, the associate gets credit for the sale.
7. Succeed at giving online customers the curated shopping experience they love
With some stores operating at reduced capacity, customers are craving a curated shopping experience. Gosha Khuchua, CMO of The Detox Market, shares his experience with virtual shopping:
“Having our retail associates manage customer interactions both digitally and in-person with virtual shopping tools is something we’d been dreaming about but hadn’t had the bandwidth to execute until recently. Everyone—customers and associates—has been saying to me, ‘We hope this stays.’”
8. You’ll boost customer retention and turn shoppers into lifetime customers
With built-in clienteling, you can encourage shoppers to opt in so you can send text and email messages to share new product releases. You can also notify customers when a product is back in stock—growing loyalty and customer lifetime value long after the first transaction.
Brands across industries are feeling this impact. Shoppers spend up to 23% more and are 85% more likely to make a second transaction, demonstrating the value of one-on-one personalized conversations.
9. Ability to measure performance by store associate
Using a virtual clienteling app (like those we mention below) lets you measure and manage employee performance. You’ll be able to view a range of metrics to help you provide associates with helpful feedback, improve processes, and boost employee engagement.
A few key performance indicators (KPIs) to consider are:
- Chats initiated by the store associate
- Average star rating (i.e., customer satisfaction score)
- Number of orders initiated per store associate
- Gross revenue generated per store associate
- Average order value
- Chat-to-sale conversion rate
10. You’ll boost retail employee happiness and decrease turnover
Happy employees lead to less turnover and a more productive team. As I mentioned earlier, virtual clienteling is changing the role of the retail associate—and it’s for the best.
Having the choice to work from home, getting involved in creating content, and going beyond greeting customers and organizing merchandise in-store gives sales staff the incentive to take ownership and use virtual selling strategies to earn more.
11. Your associates become brand ambassadors
Last, but certainly not least, is the power of video in virtual shopping.
Tapping into the seismic growth of stories as the world’s favorite way to consume authentic video content on social platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat—shoppers can now watch and buy from stories created by associates in-store as they shop online.
It’s no secret video has exploded under a rapidly changing retail landscape. A report by Bloomberg estimates a staggering 20% of all online shopping in China will be done through video by 2022, while WWD cited the success brands like Credo Beauty have seen with two-way video calling.
“20% of all online shopping in China will be done through video by 2022.”
The feature gives a community of thousands of store associates in 30 countries the tools to create shoppable videos that showcase their favorite items while telling product stories in a new and engaging way, transforming them from associates into brand influencers. Think less clerk and more Kardashian.
Examples of virtual shopping and clienteling in retail
UNTUCKit uses virtual shopping and clienteling to help online customers find the perfect fit
UNTUCKit is known for making men’s button-down shirts that look good, even when they’re untucked.
The brand’s mission is to help every customer find the perfect fit. To achieve this, it built a highly knowledgeable team of store associates who give shoppers expert recommendations on style and fit. And thanks to UNTUCKit’s use of virtual clienteling, its online customers can now enjoy the same level of service.
Through the brand’s website, online shoppers can interact with retail associates located in the nearest store through chat, text, or video. Once they’ve connected, associates are there to help them select the right color and size to find the perfect fit from UNTUCKit’s wide range of over 50 fit options.
Sales associates use video chats to provide styling tips and personalized shopping experiences that can’t be achieved by looking at static product pages alone.
Since launching its virtual clienteling strategy in May 2020, the brand has initiated over 60,000 chats with online customers, within 24 hours of chatting 88% of shoppers purchase, and the customer return rate to chat is 17%.
Credo Beauty uses virtual clienteling to help online shoppers find clean beauty products
Credo Beauty’s core focus is offering consumers the cleanest and most effective independent and luxury beauty brands on the market.
Today, it’s the biggest clean beauty retailer in the world, known for implementing strict product requirements through The Credo Clean Standard and The Dirty List. The brand went a step further by creating sustainable packaging guidelines in June 2020. These protocols educate brands about various best practices ranging from how they design product packaging to waste management.
Credo carries out its values in-store and online using virtual clienteling. It provides online customers with the same level of care, expertise, and overall service they get in-store.
Through video, live chat, and text, the brand’s beauty experts are able to educate online shoppers about the ingredients, uses, and effectiveness of its products. Associates also connect one-on-one with customers to provide personalized suggestions and custom advice in the same way they do in-person.
From February 2019 to January 2019, 80,000 chats were initiated and now Credo’s online conversion rate is over 25%. Plus, its average order value is $117.
Size? provides footwear recommendations virtually
Size? curates the best products from popular brands in footwear, apparel, and accessories. The retailer is known for its authentic storytelling and exclusive collaborations with Nike, Converse, and other household brands.
Size? successfully brought one to many video shopping to its customers in 2020. The brand’s experts (or store associates) create shoppable videos that many shoppers can watch and buy from. Its sales team evolved into brand influencers by showcasing their favorite apparel, sneakers, and accessories, and telling engaging product stories in a new way.
And with virtual clienteling, Size? experts can now offer a conversational shopping experience guiding online customers by sending real-time videos and photos of new arrivals, and showing a close-up of product details.
The brand initiated more than 50,000 virtual shopping chats in the last six months. It also lowered page abandonment rates by 26% thanks to stories and increased page visits by three times.
Jonathan Adler provides a virtual showroom shopping experience
Luxury home decor brand Jonathan Adler sells its products via its showrooms in Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and London, and through more than 1,000 wholesale partners.
In its showrooms, the brand uses virtual selling techniques to offer its online customers white-glove service.
Jonathan Adler’s design experts use video, text, and chat to quickly provide one-on-one service in the same way they would in-store. They answer shoppers’ questions, provide style advice, and share the details of products via video and photography from the showroom space.
Offering virtual clienteling to its customers has resulted in a 7-times increase in conversions, and average order value (AOV) doubled.
How to add virtual shopping and clienteling to your Shopify website with these 4 apps
Turn browsers into buyers with Shopify Inbox, a free, direct-to-customer chat feature built into your Shopify store.
You can talk to your shoppers anytime, seeing what's in their carts during chat sessions. Moreover, gain unique insights from your Inbox to inform marketing and merchandising decisions.
Adding HERO to a Shopify or Shopify Plus online store is plug and play—no coding required. Select your store locations and invite team members to begin using the HERO app for iOS and Android via a unique invite code.
Once installed, your team will be able to access performance metrics in real time as stores and shoppers begin connecting by text, chat, and video.
An all-in-one clienteling app for omnichannel brands, Endear offers a CRM, messaging and analytics platform for retailers. Empower your sales staff to follow up with customers, provide custom lookbooks linked right to your ecommerce store, and take credit for sales made both in-store and online.
Heyday combines the power of Conversational AI with the human touch of your team to deliver one-on-one customer service at scale. As you chat with shoppers, get access to data about previous and current orders, and empower your AI-powered chatbot to answer questions and recommend products.
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