Digital commerce has yet to replicate a key aspect of the in-store experience – trying and touching products before buying them, writes John Watling, Client Group Managing Director for Accenture in Africa.

Experience matters. Without it, consumers are left to guess and cross their fingers until the product is delivered to their doorstep in hopes that it meets or exceeds their expectations in quality, craftsmanship, dimensions and fit. This is the missing link that brands have tried to solve through product videos, influencer partnerships and generous return policies – but these are not enough.

There is a perceptual divide between physical and digital that could cost sales growth opportunities in product categories that consumers buy online today. Brands are missing out on expanding sales in categories like automotive and luxury that don’t sell well online because people are wary to buy these products from a distance. The shopping experience should provide control, transparency and tangibility that builds trust and drives purchasing confidence.

Currently, with consumers more open to buying more categories online in the wake of COVID-19, the pressure is on brands to bridge this divide now.

Immersive technologies: From novelty to utility

Essentially, consumers want to shop online without sacrificing purchasing confidence, and with immersive product and service experiences, they don’t have to. Winning brands are aware of this demand. Our recent survey – Accenture Interactive 2020 Immersive Experiences Survey – reveals that 64% of brands are starting to invest in immersive experiences for commerce today.

However, many are not investing in ways that are scalable or connected across the business. They are investing only in pockets, like uploading 3D models on product pages, or hosting virtual fashion shows to bring people closer to products in the digital world.

Consumers also increasingly expect immersive experiences in digital commerce. Over 52% surveyed are happy to view products without visiting the store, and 42% commend being able to assess product features and capabilities, as well as experience products before purchasing.

Unlike anything else in digital commerce, immersive experiences provide accessibility and tangibility, and this translates into confidence that a product will meet expectations. In fact, consumer confidence jumps by 4% globally when immersive technologies are used in online shopping compared to when they are not.

Of all the media that influences purchasing decisions, immersive is the only one that consumers see growing in the future. Consumers trust immersive experiences to close the sensory gap for them and provide the purchasing “proof points” they need to evaluate a product digitally. In fact, 47% of consumers would pay extra for a product if they could customise or personalise it using immersive technologies, and 60% would buy more from brands that enable them to interact with and evaluate products virtually.

Immersive technologies make this next era of shopping experiences possible. Technologies like augmented reality (AR), 360° video, 3D content and virtual reality (VR) are not only more sophisticated than ever, they are also very affordable and accessible for brands. The opportunity to grow revenue is therefore clear: more satisfied customers, repeat purchases, fewer returns and less restocking expenses and so forth. All this value starts with brands investing in immersive experiences.

How brands are investing in immersive experiences

Put me there – Immersive experiences simulate physical environments. The goal is not to create an experience that makes every phase of the journey to purchase more captivating and insightful where consumers feel connected. For example,  Emirates airline uses VR technology to offer 3D models of the cabin on its website. Travellers can make informed choices when selecting their seats and preview the environment to make the most of their time on board later.

See it on me – Immersive experiences help consumers understand how a product will look on them or in their environment. YouTube offers an AR solution that people can use to virtually try on cosmetics, and MAC Cosmetics was the first brand to leverage it. Consumers can test out MAC lipstick and shop while watching makeup tutorials. It’s a fresh fusion of technology, in-store experience, influencers and creativity.

Teach me more – Immersive experiences educate consumers on product specifics before they buy and on a regular basis after purchase to build engagement. Toyota’s AR experience helps consumers self-educate in a “choose your own adventure” style. Consumers select the car model and standard features they want to explore. The virtual car tour is available through banner ads on social media, allowing Toyota to scale its reach.

Don’t wait to innovate – invest now

The pandemic is reinventing buying behaviours and we are at a tipping point for immersive experiences in digital commerce. It is time for brands to make wise investments in immersive experiences by addressing the fundamentals. Firstly, a clear Strategy secures executive buy-in and alignment with business, marketing and sales strategies. Secondly, the design should be authentic with experience-led solutions that align with the brand purpose and needs of target buyers.

Thirdly, brands should develop a practical plan for shedding the weight of legacy technology investments while exploring new approaches. In operations, it is important to establish a process for 3D asset design, development and optimisation. Lastly, protect customers’ trust by respecting and protecting their personal data.

COVID-19 may have pushed brands to double down on the basics, but at a time when all eyes are on the digital channel, brands cannot let innovation get sidelined. Consumers want to shop online without sacrificing purchasing confidence. Brands that invest now can enhance consumer relationships, increase online sales, and open the door to the next wave of digital commerce.



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