Funnily enough when I was at university in 1998 I won a competition with Creative Brief Magazine to come up with an idea for the future of shopping. My entry was called ‘shopping for apples’ and featured a trolley in the foreground of the screen as the user walked around a virtual store dragging products off shelves into their trolley.
It seems 23 years later that idea is a reality as Spark in New Zealand have developed something very similar.
Shopping to the sound of birdsong along with views of the sea and New Zealand’s iconic pohutukawa tree sounds idyllic.
Now people can do this without leaving home, by going online at a new 3D interactive store just launched by Spark.
Spark’s senior marketing manager (trade marketing) James Henson says the store uses architecturally accurate modelling of the company’s physical store in Dunedin with shelves, display counters and products which can be rotated to view from different angles – sophisticated features which take traditional online cart shopping to a new level.
When the store appears on a phone, tablet or computer shoppers are placed outside a Spark storefront and can look around at the local landscape and coast – a little like Google’s street view.
“There are pohutukawa trees, the ocean and the sounds of birdsong,” says Henson. “It really builds up the sense that you are at a New Zealand store.”
Shopping at the virtual store is an immersive experience; anyone with a computer screen can use their fingers to move around, interact with products and chat with staff.
Is it a world-first? Henson is reluctant to say it is but admits he has been hard-pushed to find another retail website that matches the sophistication of the telco’s latest venture: “It is definitely a first of its kind in New Zealand,” he says.
“The store is entered by clicking on the shop’s doors and once inside you can see most of the items we normally carry and the prices,” he says. “For some of the products we have videos of staff reviewing them, describing their features and why they’re cool – just like you’d experience if you were visiting a physical Spark store.”
Henson says the original purpose of the virtual shop was to help customers buy the things they needed to get through lockdown – headphones, Fitbits and phone chargers – but admits it quickly turned into a project that ballooned beyond its initial scope.
“I thought if customers can’t visit our stores then we would bring the store to them,” he says. “It started off as ‘what can we do?’ and before we knew it, we had a mammoth project on our hands that took on a life of its own.”
The 3D store was literally developed 24/7 with help from website designers in Europe.
“Our Auckland development team at 99 worked during the day here, then handed the project over to a team based in Holland in the evening, and then we picked it up again in the morning,” says Henson.
The 3D virtual store is proving popular. Henson says visitors are spending more time browsing products and ‘walking around’ the shop when compared to its traditional one-dimensional shopping cart site.
“We are seeing large numbers of people, unique visitors, coming in every day and completing their purchases.”
There are already plans to develop the store with a video chat option where visitors can see and talk with Spark staff.
“We know the key thing you get from going into the physical space is one-on-one personalised conversation with a retail expert,” says Henson.
“Video chatting is planned for phase two of the virtual store. But right now the live chat option is proving successful. Staff can see on their screen where the customer is in the store when they start to chat – so they know what the customer is looking at and how best to help them.”
In addition to products such as phones and gaming machines, customers can buy any of Spark’s services – and there are plans to expand the virtual store concept for small business owners.
“They are just as important as the consumer, so we are developing ways to help SMEs as well,” says Henson.
While visiting Spark’s virtual store may be the future of retail for home shoppers, the downside is that you can’t visit the coffee shop next door. But you can bet someone is working on that.
Go to spark’s virtual store at: