Will virtual shopping become the high street’s reaction to a post-pandemic world?

Does the thought of taking public transport into the city centre and wandering around an enclosed shop make you shudder? Selfridges has bolstered its virtual shopping experience in reaction to the pandemic which, could be a trend that the rest of the high street follows. 

Coronavirus has changed, well, pretty much everything. Office jobs that demanded we board the early morning commuter train and sit at our desks from 9-5 have shaped and warped around a world where remote working is the norm.

The pandemic has sent the wedding and travel industries into a tailspin, too, with constantly changing rules meaning that both engaged couples and holiday makers have been caught out making plans, only for them to be banned sometimes just hours before. Because of this we’ve seen venues, hotels, suppliers and caterers too, all in danger of closing permanently or at least being hit with huge financial issues. 

So, as a way of adapting, virtual experiences have become commonplace. It started slowly, with virtual drinks and pub quizzes at the weekend over video platforms like Zoom. Then there was talk of video weddings, with some venues even offering this as part of their ‘coronavirus packages’. Now, it’s quite normal to have a virtual job interview – so much so we’ve consulted experts on how to make the best impression in yours. 

What’s next, then, you might ask? Well, as shops are reopening (with maximum capacity of consumers and face masks enforced) it looks like virtual appointments could spell a new retail reality away from the high street. 

The pandemic has been crippling for the high street. In early July, the Independent reported that John Lewis & Partners was anticipating store closures alongside a loss of jobs, and that Harrods also predicted cutting 700 workers from the store’s staff. 

The enforced closures of all retail non-essential stores for three months over lockdown has damaged the high street, but even now when shoppers are able to wander about and look at items as before, customers are too afraid to come back into city centres and spend their money.

The answer? Going virtual  – something that Selfridges is pioneering with its Elfridges virtual gifting and shopping services.

Speaking with Zuhal Sultani, one of the personal shoppers on the Elfridges team, she explains that this service has been an essential reaction to the pandemic. “I’ve been doing virtual shopping appointments for around six weeks and so far, the reaction has been brilliant. Some of our customers are still scared to come into store or, even if they would like to have a shop around, they can’t face travelling in on public transport like the Tube. 

“This service means that not only do they get personal help and advice from a shopping assistant, in the same way you could access someone working on the shop floor, but we can tell them about new launches, check out sizes for them and show them the items up close on camera which actually makes a huge difference.”

Sultani is right, virtual shopping is very different to online shopping. First, anyone who signs up for their free virtual shopping consultation (because, yes, the entire service is free and there’s no minimum spend so everyone is welcome) by booking a time slot on the Selfridges website, fills out a form explaining who they’re buying for and what kind of thing they had in mind. 

You see, Elfridges is specifically helpful as a gifting service, but Selfridges also offer options for styling and beauty advice if you’re buying for yourself. After filling out this short survey, noting any particular styles or ideas of products that you have in mind, you’ll receive a hefty email from your personal virtual shopper who will dig deeper into what you’re looking for. Immediately springing with ideas, expect to hear suggestions on new arrivals and best sellers, and enquiries on your preferences even further. 

After speaking back and forth over email with your shopper, detailing which ideas you like or giving more information on certain colours, styles or brand names that you prefer, expect to hear from them over WhatsApp, too. Once they’ve made some progress researching your preferences, they’ll likely check in before your appointment to let you know some of the items they have kept to the side for you. 

“I can spend between an hour and two hours researching for a client, picking out items and preparing recommendations on beauty products,” says Sultani.

Then, when it’s time for the appointment your shopper will call you using whichever video platform you have pre-selected, and in a small, private room, explain the ideas they had with the products on hand to show you up close on camera.  

It’s impressive, and frankly, makes life easier to receive this level of help from someone who knows the stock inside out and can advise you on which products are most top-rated. Although a shopping assistant may be floating around on a shop floor, it’s rare that you’ll ever receive this amount of attention and because the service is free, it doesn’t feel exclusive. 

Most crucially, though, it works. Although we love online shopping as much as the next person, it’s much harder to see the true colour of a fashion item or the way it moves on a static image. In fact, it was surprising to see how much items came to life on camera, with Sultani holding them up and moving them in the light. 

Sure, there’s something all very A.I about a world where going to the shops actually means sitting on your sofa and looking at a dress through a screen, but as customers continue to be cautious about going into enclosed, busy areas this could be the future.

Images: Getty 

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