Does Video Chat Threaten Retail?

As I think of the good reasons to go to a store to buy something, instead of over the Web, some of those reasons may go away in the future. There may be a new Web version of retail brewing.

This has been on my mind since I posted on my other blog about the Trunk Club offering men a way to get the personal-service advantage of help and recommendations and opinions that they'd get from a good salesperson, without having to actually go to the store. It comes via Web video chat from a Trunk Club style expert. Founder Joanna Van Vleck pointed out that this may be the future of retail.

It takes dividing the benefits of buying retail into their components. Some can be replaced by the Web, some can't.

The world has already seen how effectively a Web offering can replace the kind of browsing we do in a bookstore. As long as we're able to wait a few days to get what we choose to buy. And more so with computer software. We choose and download. We don't even have to wait.

One component a Web alternative will never replace is immediacy for things that can't be delivered digitally. If you want some physical product right now today, then you go to the store. You go to a restaurant to sit and be served, and to the hair place to get your hair done, and that's not going to happen via live video chat.

Another component is the actual visual and tactile comparison. Look at the various offerings on the shelf. Pick them up, read the package, make a choice.

The component of the retail transaction that a Web alternative might replace, for some businesses, is the interaction with the expert. Many hardware and home maintenance and home remodeling businesses advertise person-to-person expertise as a reason to visit the store. Could that become a live Web chat followed by an order, shipping, and then maybe more Web chat? What about the specialty vitamin shop, or the health foods store? The hobby shop? And maybe the office supplies and office technology business, offering a video chat with an expert leading to an order for a printer, or scanner, or new computer?

Better still, I have an expert I know and trust, with whom I have worked again and again over time, who I can meet with, by appointment on the Web cam.

The secret is the use of the interactive Web video — over Skype, for example, or equivalent Yahoo! or Google video chat facilities — to do what that trusted salesperson in the favorite store might do.

So it makes me start to think. Sure, with this model I have to wait to actually get the goods; but I don't have to go to the store, wait in traffic, park the car, find the salesperson, and so on. It's a very intriguing alternative.

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