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How to turn shopping malls into a physical and virtual retail world

November 05, 2020

By Terrance Wong

COVID-19 is forcing retail designers to explore ways to bridge the gap between the physical shopping experience and eCommerce

Traditional brick and mortar retail shopping has undergone significant pressure from online retailers in the last decade—with the ongoing pandemic making online buying a greater part of the new normal. Retailers of all sizes now need their own shopping website, complete with a robust social media presence, to stay ahead of the curve and adapt to the technology-savvy generation.

Over the past five years, online sales growth has steadily increased. In 2019, eCommerce was 16% of all retail sales in the US. Early data suggests that 2020 will see growth to 18%.  

Does this mean the end of shopping centers and traditional retail stores? As I pondered this question, I started to explore ideas of how today’s advanced technology can create a virtual hub that does not render the physical retail world obsolete. 

Laser scanning a retail space for a real-life virtual replica allows consumers to access the mall on their digital devices.

A virtual view

Anyone with access to computers and mobile devices have seen how technology allows us to virtually see places anywhere in the world. The design and construction industries are leveraging this technology with cameras that laser scan the space of a built environment and align the tile photographs onto a point cloud 3D model. This data is converted into a Revit model, which can even be viewed through a web browser.

Once completed, we can conduct virtual walkthroughs of the space and take dimensions of the model. This tool is useful in renovation projects where the designer can put themselves into a space and identify issues and conflicts at an early stage.

So, what if we apply this similar technology to the retail environment? The “Virtual Mall” can be created in two main steps:

  1. Laser scan and photograph the shopping center and retail stores: Today this is done manually as a person walks through the space with the laser scanner/camera to capture what is available to shoppers. The frequency of store scans can be dependent on new merchandising or layouts. Drone technology would help speed the scanning process. The data collected can then inform the creation of a virtual 3D model of the space.
  2. Tagging: With the raw model and images aligned, the next step is linking—or “tagging”—merchandise in a 3D photo. Once created, a customer moves the pointer in the viewer and hovers over the merchandise. With a click, the customer is on a traditional online web page. The virtual mall is then open for business.

Pop-up tags indicate information like size and price in the virtual store.

This digital landscape allows shoppers to “walk” around the mall, window shop, enter a specific store an­d explore—all through a computer or mobile device. Find something you like? Shoppers can open detailed product links and seamlessly go back into the 3D view and continue the exploration.

The final step in your virtual shopping is to go back into your cart, pay for the goods, and determine if it should be shipped or packaged for local pickup. Mall “runners” gather the order and have it ready at the mall’s new dedicated pickup center—ideally an exterior location like the parking lot, something many have experienced during COVID-19.

Today’s advanced technology can create a virtual hub that does not render the physical retail world obsolete.

Changing roles for the designer

Virtual stores can influence our traditional design roles in the future. Instead of limiting our involvement to the design of the physical space, the design team can model and simulate the merchandising layouts in Revit with test layouts that best optimize and enhance a virtual user experience.

To make the experience more immersive, retailers can incorporate virtual reality into the shopping experience. Amazon did it before with their virtual reality kiosks to promote Prime Day, which allowed the user to browse each department and themed rooms filled with Amazon promoted products. Integration with VR can open many doors to potential interaction with other users using the same virtual mall.

Another possibility is viewing a VR representation of yourself, where a photo of your face is applied onto the 3D avatar that closely resembles your body type. You can try on different clothes, spin the model, and even simulate walking into a virtual dressing room.

Creation of avatars that closely resemble your body type create a more immersive online shopping experience.

The idea of a virtual shopping experience seems fun and accessible. But what about the joy of walking through a store to feel the fabric of dress, try on a pair of shoes, hold a vase to feel its weight, or see the true color of blanket for your home. 

While many of us think that online shopping is the new future, we must remind ourselves that humans are social creatures. We crave interaction and stimuli that a pure online retail environment can’t provide. Therefore, adaptation and flexibility in the way we approach our future design work is crucial.

With the implementation of existing technologies, we can bridge the gap between the physical and online world. Through collaboration between architects, interior designers, and web developers, we can explore this new scenario that can blend safety and convenience while bringing the fun back into shopping—all through a virtual platform. It could even open doors to shopping expeditions anywhere in the world, 24/7. Although that may be a lot more complicated, challenging, and layered, the idea is not entirely impossible. It’s fun to think about in the meantime. 

  • Terrance Wong

    A principal architect in our Vancouver office, Terrance led the execution and design of Metrotower III and Port of Nanaimo Conference Centre. He’s also been working on ICE District Development in Edmonton, and Stantec Tower

    Contact Terrance
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