While necessity is the mother of invention, virtual appointments are one instance where the service will likely see long-term adoption, writes Lauren Freedman, senior consumer insights analyst at Digital Commerce 360.

We’re still stuck at home. While most stores are open, many have limitations in terms of number of visitors and services offered. I had seen links and messaging suggesting that some retailers were offering virtual appointments, but I had yet to take advantage of this service. Amid the pandemic, it seemed like a perfect time to try. The holidays were approaching, and my interest had piqued. This was truly an opportunity for retailers to let their customers shop their way and my experiences proved that retailers had been building and perfecting these services to optimize their capabilities during this unprecedented year. While necessity is the mother of invention, this is one instance where the service will likely see long-term adoption.

Based on the five virtual interactions that will be shared below, here’s what I now believe makes for a good virtual shopping experience:

  1. Good description of the service.
  2. Promotion of the service in the shopping experience.
  3. Calendar access to book appointments online versus having to request an appointment.
  4. Comprehensive and customized information provided by the customer prior to the call.
  5. Communication about the appointment to set expectations.
  6. Reminder to join the virtual call (Zoom or Facebook).
  7. Knowledgeable associates with a personal on brand touch.
  8. Customized tools that support the shopping experience.
  9. Follow-up post virtual appointment with product names and links for future purchasing.
  10. Established connection with store associate to address future needs.

Kay Jewelers: Gift for 18-year-old daughter

Jewelry was top of mind for my first virtual visit. I am not too knowledgeable about the category and this would give me a chance to get up to speed in the privacy of my own home. The setup was quite efficient where I could use a calendar to select the date and time that works for my schedule. I liked the fact that It showed both morning and afternoon times and how many were available. There was also an option to go virtual or in-person.

My virtual assistant was calling in from her home. She asked me a few questions to get started, which were category-appropriate, including color (silver, platinum, gold) and style preferences, along with the type of pieces my daughter owns. Based on my input, I have to say she made a perfect selection. The only issue was that I had asked for rings and bracelets and she gave me necklaces and earrings. She was friendly, and when I asked her to send me a link to the recommended items, she suggested they were not on a commission. I also inquired about how many appointments were typical. Her schedule pre-Black Friday included 42 on Tuesday, 36 Wednesday and capped with 50 on Black Friday. She wrapped by sharing that I now had her personal mobile number in case I needed anything.

Crate & Barrel: Home office remodel

I reached out to Crate & Barrel, letting the retailer know that I have a street-level room, which is now my home office and I would like to brighten it up. I indicated that I was redecorating and starting from scratch. This initial intake was followed up with an even-more-thorough email the following day. My design associate led me through his process, including producing a mood board and shoppable products list to guide the remodel. I was to answer a few questions that would help clarify my needs. I also sent along two pictures of the room, which I’m guessing will further direct the process and help him gauge my taste level.

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Our 10-minute zoom call was a chance to explore the service more, and his easy, approachable demeanor made it a delightful experience. He indicated that he usually does two to four a day. Crate & Barrel’s focus was also on a however-you-want-to-buy mentality, given today’s circumstances. He dug deeper into my requests saying that he had a manufacturer in mind. With all the craziness around the pandemic, he wanted to know my timing as furniture manufacturers are busy. He did ask about my familiarity with the Crate & Barrel brand and whether I could wait for the product. He probed about the specific products and even asked about a new chair. I closed by asking when he would have something next week, though he said it might even be the next day as he had a recommendation in mind. The design is beautiful, and he sent an email explaining what he selected and its recommended usage.

Nordstrom: Wardrobe update for work-from-home lifestyle

Nordstrom has always been a favorite of mine and known for its outstanding customer service track record. This would give me a chance to test another facet, as I signed up for a 30-minute virtual styling appointment.

To get started, I could select a store of choice and a particular staff member should I already have an established relationship. I was asked to provide information about myself, including the items or outfits I was hoping to find, my style preference and a target budget. Both text and email follow-ups were sent immediately. Impressively, I received a follow-up email from my personal shopper who had a few further questions to ensure the experience went smoothly. She wanted to know what type of clothes I was looking for, the departments I shop at Nordstrom (Individualist, contemporary, private label) and my sizes. Again, she asked what you want to see and/or come away with after this appointment. More questions ensued such as for color and pattern preference for tops and styles of shoes, such as boots, flat or chunky heels. And my favorite, “Can I ask your age? Only because I want to send you items age appropriate. Lol!”

She shared that they have an online Styling App called a Styling-Board. She sends the shopper “Style-board Looks,” and the shopper selects the items she wants, adds them to her cart, and checks out. Just like ordering items online. But the difference is she only gets credit for the items she sends you.

She sent me my first “look” and I loved the convenience of her sharing what was available. Also, the ability to use the chat feature where she could ask more questions and direct me and I could provide immediate feedback within the context of the service. This service was powerful in its ability to build a relationship with a team member, an opportunity for me to quickly add items to my cart (which I did) and for the associate to get their commission. It was a win-win for all.

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 Best Buy: Fitness equipment for in-home gym

I had an appointment confirmed with Chris from Best Buy.

I wasn’t sure if he would be sending me a link but it ended up to just be a phone call. I emailed at 3:15 p.m. as I hadn’t heard from him for our 3 p.m. appointment. My request was for a treadmill under $1,000. He let me know from the get-go that he was not an expert in exercise equipment. Mostly he does in-home calls with an emphasis on appliances, home theater and computing. While I appreciated his honesty, I figured I would still go through with the call.

One of the most interesting things was that he had the corporate lingo down saying his goal is “to meet the customer wherever they are.” He gave some general features and topline notes about the brands under consideration and said he was knowledgeable enough to be dangerous. While it was a growing category, he was not an expert. He shared that it was mostly the incline and motor speed one should review. All things being equal, he would go with the cheaper model. I also asked about delivery, and he shared how the unboxing and assembly is $149.99. I then asked if the treadmill was in stock and he said it was available but didn’t know the estimated time of arrival. He said to hold on to his cell and I could label him as the “Best Buy Guy,” and I could call him at any time, which was a nice touch.

I wouldn’t be inclined to use this service again, as I had specified my needs in advance and I expected a more qualified rep to address my circumstances. I’d likely choose a specialty store in the future.

Lululemon: Sizing on biker shorts

I was browsing through lululemon for a pair of biker shorts for my daughter. In doing so, I saw that it offered Zoom appointments. I gravitated to the “Let’s get personal” 15-minute appointments. In advance of the appointment, the retailer asked a few questions: choice of video chat (FaceTime or Zoom), country from which I was shopping, who I was shopping for and the gear I sought, including specifics. The questioning was very much in keeping with the brand and included messaging such as “Do you have your eye on a specific piece of gear?”

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Nice to see that military, first responders or healthcare workers could get special appointments. They were clear that they were not customer service reps who could help with my order. The appointment was confirmed, and I received a link for the call. The store rep and I had a little back and forth to warm up. She let me know that she did about 11 of these chats a day and that the team overall did 650 a day, qualifying that, of course, it was holiday season. When I stopped in at the store, I complimented the service, and the associate alluded to the fact that they had worked in the store and were given the option for this virtual role.

She inquired about how my daughter would use the product and, based on that, suggested that the initial product she selected was really for hot yoga and that she had another better option. She used a pointer to highlight details of the shorts from the drawstring pull to the pocket. She spoke at length about the fabrics, which has always been the cornerstone of the brand. I then inquired about sizing and she asked if I understood how to translate XS to a number size like 2 or 4. Additionally, she showed a second product option and suggested sizing up so they are not tight around the thighs. She gave lots of personal examples, which almost made it seem like I was shopping with a friend. In some ways, it was better than an in-store associate as all the attention centered on me and my needs.

The follow-up email was personal and included her personal appointment link and the message, “I’d love to meet with you again to chat through gear that’s catching your eye in the future.” The fact that these folks are directly connecting and wanting you to stay in touch reminds me of replicating the best of personal shopping from the old days of retail.

Virtual appointment takeaways

Based on these experiences, I am a believer and anticipate I will be taking advantage of virtual appointments more frequently. Here is why I’m going virtual on appointments:

  1. It is faster.
  2. They are scheduled at my convenience.
  3. I do not have to hunt around for a design specialist at retail.
  4. I can communicate easily throughout the process.
  5. I have a record of my transaction.
  6. I can reconnect easily with my store representative.
  7. There are no distractions as all the attention centers on me.

My expectations are that retailer adoption will accelerate and customer acceptance rates will increase as more top retailers and brands adopt and perfect this model. I can’t wait for my next virtual appointment.

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