or: I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it.
Since forever, we’ve had the experience — some more frequently than others — of seeing an object and wanting it, but finding multiple obstacles like not knowing the brand/make/model, where it’s available, and so on.
Lots of friction, as those of us working in and around retail like to say.
And in the digital realm, our social sharing often suffers from the same ambiguities, falling short of precisely pointing to the object(s) that is the intent of the share. The specific apparel item or sneakers we want to show off, the couch or dresser we’re considering, the exciting new device or appliance. Intentional conspicuous consumption or not, it’s often valuable to be specific about the products in our posts.
Web/mobile commerce has made fulfillment increasingly accessible, easy, quick and reliable — and yet it hasn’t yet made objects in the world shoppable. And for all of the advances of social media over the past decade, we’re just now verging on functionality that lets us precisely point to individual objects in our posts.
This is about to change.
Shoppability (and its limitations)
In this commerce-driven world of ours, making things easier to shop for — making them more shoppable — is one of the biggest drivers of technological evolution. Exhibit A: Amazon’s pursuit of web, mobile, dash button, voice-driven shopping, while primarily driven by increasing the shoppability of as many (categories of) items as possible, created and drove the need for AWS. And of course AWS led to all sorts of other things — most importantly, making it dramatically easier to spin up a new digital product/service, resulting in AWS powering a significant percentage of the online world.
“Amazon solved buying — but killed shopping in the process.” — Emily Weiss, CEO Glossier
Despite the accelerating growth of ecommerce, many categories of physical objects still can’t be effectively shopped for without our being present with them. Many kinds of apparel, furniture, cars, home appliances, electronic devices need to be inspected, tried on, seen in context — generally we need to be present with these objects in order to make a purchase decision.
And bigger picture, all sorts of things we see in the world could be bought and sold if we just knew what they are — who makes them and where to buy.
This has limited the growth of ecommerce for these categories, keeping friction in place where it’s been removed for other types of goods.
Shareability (and its limitations)
We know social sharing drives awareness and conversion already. For many years, brands have created and encouraged sharing of content depicting their products and services — and cottage industries have grown up around these behaviors, geared towards bringing human influence to bear. But until recently the connection between shared and shoppable was indirect and therefore loose.
We’re in the early stages of directly shoppable socially-shared content today — from Instagram’s new Checkout support to Pinterest to celebrity influencer-driven shoppable video — and what’s coming next will build naturally from this.
The next big leap for both shoppability and shareability
While most of us have seen a range of VR/AR/XR content and experiences, very few rely on 3D simulation of objects and spaces to take care of everyday tasks at this point.
This will change when all physical objects are represented digitally and can be shared as 3D photorealistic, individually transactable digital twins. Granular, precise product awareness and conversion will explode.
“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” — William Gibson
Already today, numerous products can be previewed as 3D digital representations in the context in which we intend to use them. Many problems remain to be worked out — new frictions like getting digital size to match actual size, and making object placement and visibility work realistically. Still, major brands from IKEA to Wayfair to many Shopify-powered stores now offer AR preview for many of their items.
And AR isn’t just about previewing digital objects in the physical world — it’s also about recognizing physical objects around us using Computer Vision (CV) and Machine Learning (ML). Visual Search is still in its early days — and it will gradually make everyday objects knowable in ways that support all sorts of useful interactions, including buying them.
By supporting object identification and immersive contextual inspection, Visual Search and 3D product representation will go a long way towards solving the shoppability problem. What’s still missing is the ability to share these objects the way we share everything else online — in multimedia social posts, with captions and visual context and links for related detail and actions.
How it’s going to happen
To make this future evenly distributed, what we need is a standard way to represent products in 3D, used by the majority of retail brands and companies that work with them — from product design, manufacturing and supply chain participants through to social platforms, apps and desktop and mobile OS’s.
If this sounds abstract or strange, consider that documents, images and video have all undergone this same standardization process over time — and that it’s this process — along with advances in connectivity and on-device rendering capabilities — that has made it possible for us to share these types of content reliably across all sorts of computers and devices.
As of April 2019, this standards process is full speed ahead, and it will lead to 3D becoming the next major media type, soon as commonly shared and interacted with as video is today. And this shift will profoundly transform the ways we shop.
First, retail — then, the rest of the world
All of this will continue to increase the percentage of shopping that (can) happen digitally, without physical co-presence of shopper and merchandise. And in parallel, increase the flexibility retailers have regarding how they utilize their physical spaces.
Ultimately, we expect that all objects — even the entire physical world — will be represented via the evolution of this new media type, as well as recognizable and searchable via CV/ML. Kevin Kelly brilliantly envisioned this near future in his recent Wired story on the Mirrorworld.
Meantime, retail is leading the way because of the obvious economic incentives — which we will explore in depth as this series unfolds.
In upcoming posts, The Near Future of Retail will continue to explore the convergence of digital and physical, and the convergence of human expression and commercial transaction.