Luxury watch and jewelry retailer Watches of Switzerland Group had to close its 150 stores in the U.S. and the U.K. for nearly six months when the pandemic struck and found it difficult to reach customers. So, it had to find new ways to maintain its service level and sales—online.

Initially, it launched appointments for shoppers at its retail stores when it reopened its locations, but it still had to maintain COVID-19 safety protocols. Shoppers would book an appointment online and pick a time to meet with store associates in stores. Or shoppers could book virtual appointments and have a video chat with a store associate.

During the height of the pandemic from April through June 2020, it received about 6,000 appointment requests per week, says Ian Warwick, director of ecommerce. Throughout the rest of the year, the number of appointments varied depending on if its stores were open or the region was in lockdown, he says.

“We wanted to keep in touch with our clients and services. It was all made possible because of ecommerce, so virtual appointments were used as the visual tool for the customer,” Warwick says.

Then, in late 2020, it added a virtual boutique, which is a platform that enables shoppers to browse products, guided by one of its customer service agents, who are also watch and jewelry product experts. The retailer added a virtual boutique to give shoppers the ability to view products in more detail than the regular ecommerce site allowed on product detail pages. This is also different from the virtual appointments, which are one-on-one video chats, and the boutique is housed in a virtual environment so consumers can shop the ecommerce site alongside an expert.

And the added customer service worked. Thanks to the virtual boutique and virtual appointments, Watches of Switzerland experienced a lift in its conversion and average order value compared with shoppers who did not use its virtual services.

“The main thing is that it’s very difficult to copy the experience that a customer received in an in-store environment,” Warwick says. “We’ve always given exceptional service but trying to replicate that is difficult. But these services bridge the gap between offline and online.”

It’s no secret that online shoppers want and expect high-quality customer service as more of them move their spending online. 47% of shoppers said high-quality customer service is most important to them when shopping online, according to a September 2021 Digital Commerce 360/Bizrate Insights customer experience survey of 1,000 online shoppers.

But it can be challenging for retailers to evoke the same level of confidence in online shoppers to make their purchase or get their questions answered in a timely manner compared with consumers shopping in a physical store—where they can find a store associate and get answers immediately. In fact, 48% of shoppers said timely issue resolving is most important to them when shopping online, according to the September 2021 Digital Commerce 360/Bizrate Insights survey.

So, online retailers have to find ways to connect with the customer when in-person, store-based interactions are unavailable. And for a few of them, it’s producing positive results.

“Merchants are finding ways to show shoppers they’re making the right choice without the advantage of a physical, tactile experience,” says Megan Stillerman, senior vice president of customer experience at ecommerce platform software company Miva. “Online shopping features like digital showrooms, product visualizers, mix-and-match builders, live chat, video, augmented reality, user reviews, and engaged salespeople are tactics merchants are using to increase consumer confidence in their purchasing decision.”

High-quality, timely customer service has evolved beyond picking up the phone, filling out a contact form or sending an email. Three online retailers share how they’re going above and beyond to help shoppers from the moment they land on their website to when their purchased product arrives at their doorstep.

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