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Bringing eCommerce forward and … backward

Shopping is moving towards a digital reality framework where physical and digital space seamlessly mix. In the image a representation of a virtual store that can be seen from any place, as well as on site. In the first case it delivers VR settings, in the second AR settings. Image credit:Alibaba

The pandemic has accelerated the access to eCommerce and, possibly more important in terms of future evolution, it has brought more customers and more shops (owners) to the cyberspace. This is creating more competition in a market seeing a few behemoths and a growing number of small businesses. For the former the challenge is to create the perfect, engaging environment, for customers to access an almost unlimited offer (Amazon is selling some 12 million products and hosts on its virtual shelves over 350 million products!), for the latter the challenge is to bring customers to their (virtual) store. The formers have logistic and offer on their side, the latter have a (potentially) brick and mortar mom and pop feeling.

Technology is going to play a major role in this fight for eyeballs with AI leading in the backstage. The frontstage will see AR and VR as crucial players, although in both cases we are still waiting for the equivalent of the iPhone. The “invention” of the iPhone, as you may remember, has changed the way we browse the web, bringing it to the mobile space. A new device is needed to create a seamless experience, Google glasses were a good but not sufficient attempt.

This entrance of AR and VR is what I call “bringing the eCommerce forward”: exploiting new technology in the cyberspace.

There is, however, another important evolution that I decided to call “bringing the eCommerce backward”: trying to recreate the feeling of mom and pop store shopping to remote customers. This requires the capability to develop a “human touch” making customers feel they are in the shop and most importantly interacting with the shop owner (or attendants).

This is, I feel, important since it clearly differentiates from the behemoth and might be able to capture a significant amount of people that are feeling uneasy with what it is perceived as an anonymous interaction (“whom could I complain?” It is a sentence I often hear from people not used to eCommerce – it doesn’t matter that in many places you get a very good after sale service… the perception is there).

An example that I feel goes along this trend is ShopCall, watch the clip. It is a startup that wants to make eCommerce seamless both for brick and mortar shops, addressing a 123 B€ market, and for customers that today feel much more at ease in the physical space. On the shop side they claim to be able to set up the virtual store in the blink of an eye, taking care of the interface, of stock presentation and of payments. On the customer side they are customising the experience to mobile devices.

They provide both a virtual space as well as a video communication channel between the shop and the prospective customer, thus supporting a better human touch feeling. Although over time a growing portion of people will become accustomed to the virtual space I can imagine that in some (shopping) sectors there will remain a competitive advantage in a personal interaction. For sure, more and more brick and mortar stores will need to reinvent their “interaction model” to survive the shift to the cyberspace.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.