How can retailers do Christmas virtually?

By Benedict Ireland, Head of Experience at Splendid UNLIMITED

As Christmas nears, retailers still have to prepare despite the ongoing and varying levels of restrictions across the country.

John Lewis launched its virtual Christmas shop and saw immediate praise – but should other retailers be joining suit? 

In some areas of retail, virtual shop windows make absolute sense – at least during lockdown. For many the windows themselves are an event. Parents take their children to see the magical creations in the Selfridges windows, and Selfridges have responded by launching their windows online. The effect of virtual windows is the same as the physical – to draw viewers into the purchase path. In real life this means stepping into the store, virtually it means clicking through to the website. What the websites usually lack, however, is the magic which runs throughout the store, instead opting for a fairly tired skin on what is fundamentally the same site. 

John Lewis’ response is good in that it shows you the store experience, but bad in that you don’t really get to feel a part of it. Christmas is the largest selling season in the UK, but internationally there are many and varied reasons to do something special. AR/VR (included in John Lewis’ example but again limited) have value but limited audience scope due to hardware requirements. If we look to gaming, to the truly immersive worlds we see within those platforms, retailers and brands should be looking to those experiences to truly allow customers to buy into the world of their brand when the physical experience is not an option.

Virtual Santa’s grottos can be very profitable

Santa’s grotto is very difficult to replicate virtually. The opportunity is that the grotto is aimed at children – an audience with virtually unlimited creativity and willing suspension of disbelief. The normal format of a man dressed in a red suit with a beard is, in some ways, a little TOO real for some children. However, taking this virtually opens up scope for all manner of adventures, immersion and yet still retaining that fundamental belief that the child has actually ‘met’ Santa. 

There is scope of ‘real’ 1-1 video appointments with Santa, or virtual dynamic canned experiences where the child’s name is inserted, some questions are asked and answered and the child is encouraged to say what they’d like for Christmas… assuming they’ve met the requisite behavioural requirements of the parents, of course! 

In fact, virtual environments win in almost every aspect of the grotto experience, so retailers should capitalise on those if we want to make Christmas memorable (and profitable). 

And as reported by Keza MacDonald (video games editor at the Guardian) – an Oxford study last week concluded that those who play video games report better mental health wellbeing. When we consider that over 85% of under 35s fit this demographic, it’s easy to make a case for something we as a nation love. Retail. Therapy.

The scope for virtual measures to be that start of a re-think to create amazing experiences.

Whether optimised through all the senses in-store, or optimised through magical ‘other worldy’ experiences. The fact is, a combination of the two would offer maximum reach, maximum experience and quite probably deliver maximum profit to the business as a result of increased footfall both digitally and physically. Those experiences should work hand-in-hand, it’s not enough to ‘just’ put a 3D walkthrough of the physical store online and wrap it with the same old website. And that requirement shouldn’t exist only seasonally. 

A virtual Christmas can be profitable for retailers this year, but there are extra steps to take…

Benedict Ireland
Benedict Ireland

There are a number of factors affecting profitability, not least the employment impacts of the pandemic, however it does place an extra onus on non-physical channels to deliver above and beyond their usual share of revenue. To optimise channels, consider the following:

The purchase experience: Now more than ever, competition will be tough. Traditionally, stores have aimed to differentiate and attract through in-store experience, through advertising, and through marketing. Experiences (such as the virtual grotto mentioned earlier) can in many ways be served more imaginatively in digital channels. 

Content: How brands use content, social media and digital marketing to drive physical or virtual footfall will be a major factor in their sales success over the season. With a larger segment of the audience expected to turn to digital channels, how you tempt them to YOURS will be critical. 

Services: Whether it’s peripheral services like gifting, wrapping and enhanced delivery, or propositional services like grottos and windows, there are further opportunities to make a brand or retailer the destination of choice. 

Convenience: Above all, convenience and simplicity are two aspects which digital channels cannot afford to get wrong. Providing the right choice, price, payment methods, deliver and returns options (especially when gifting) are all paramount. 

Value: Digital channels offer the customer scope to shop based entirely on cost. Fortunately, price isn’t the only aspect of value which we know sways custom.

Shoppers can have a MORE impressive shopping experience virtually

Imagine being able to see behind the fancy windows, understand the curation, the choices, and the story behind the windows. The trends informing them, or the worlds they create. The possibilities of digital channels often extend far beyond what can be delivered physically. 

Looking to the opportunities across the sense can also help inform digital solutions: sound, augmented reality, virtual reality and even smell and taste can be provided through augmented solutions.

For marketer’s product selection and brand awareness may be largely the same as ever, however we expect to see a shift in the services and direction of footfall, in many cases directing the customer to digital channels. For many businesses that requires that the brand remains in memory, and that the channel choice is clear. Obviously, the large players have their Christmas advertising campaigns, and marketing activity supports accordingly. This year, we expect to see far more targeted and intelligent digital marketing activity to ensure that the advert seen on TV triggers the digital channel. Importantly, retailers should have a human understanding approach to getting customers through their digital doors.