They fit onto the smallest sales floors and are still able to show the entire product portfolio: virtual shelves. That is also why they have become increasingly popular over the past three years. Retailers like EP: and Knauber also rely on this interactive source of information.
EP: (ElectronicPartner) has already equipped 700 of its stores with virtual shelves. The touchscreens were originally used in Austria and have now been expanded into the DACH market (Germany, Austria, and Switzerland). “The chance to offer its entire product portfolio even on a small sales floor is especially important to EP:,” explains Thomas-Peter Fischer of jumptomorrow, which is responsible for the installation and software solution behind it.
“Wealth of information boosts customer perceived value“ (Mittelstand 4.0-Agentur Handel)
The latest virtual shelf software solutions provide sales options such as guided selling, cross-selling and upselling customers already know from online retail. To do this, systems bundle contents from image databases, inventory management systems and customer reviews. Ideally, this results in a very high degree of information density. According to a study by the Mittelstand 4.0-Agentur Handel agency, this creates the best customer value.
In 2016, the study analyzed the responses of consumers to virtual shelves at the Knauber Innovation Store in Pulheim, Germany. The authors summarize: “Based on their previous experiences, consumers expect an intuitive and user-friendly operation that works without any issues – having fun while doing so plays a secondary role with this application. Having said that, if virtual product shelves also offer a high degree of information and content, they are perceived as useful“.
"Kunden nutzen bei virtuellen Regalen bislang am meisten: ausführliche Produktinfos und Fotos, ausgeprägte Filterfunktionen auf wesentliche Produkte, Bewertungen (so, wie im Onlinehandel auch) sowie Kaufanregungen für alternative Produkte. Was Kunden wichtig ist: die Produkte auch online bestellen zu können." (Tobias Nagel, Online Software AG)
Positioning in the store: great visibility for customers
For customers to actually notice the virtual shelf as an information and service option, they need to be positioned at the right spot in the store. Tobias Nagel of the Online Software AG explains, “Shelves should not be right at the entrance area since customers walk by it too quickly. They make more sense in a specialty department where the customer experiences a certain link to the product or at central hotspots, waiting areas or popular routes. What’s more, the screen should be placed so that customers are able to enter their personal data undisturbed“.
He believes that a general use in product categories such as consumer electronics, books and media, hobby items, toys, home improvement items as well as furniture and home décor makes a lot of sense. Yet he doesn’t believe it makes sense to utilize the shelves for products that require a lot of explanation and service since customers expect an intuitive system that quickly provides information and assists in the ordering or purchasing process.
Attracting attention with large screens and videos
Customer perception is significantly influenced by the size of the screen and displayed content. Says Nagel, “The larger the screen, the more comfortable customers are in using it – you need 55 inches and up. A regular-sized TV screen is almost too unremarkable. At the same time, the size should not overwhelm the customer either but rather blend smoothly into the overall store design“.
Videos on the screens can grab the customer’s attention. Having said that, Nagel also cautions, “Videos should not fill up the entire screen. At that point, the screen is no longer perceived as an interactive medium. What’s more, the function of the device should be prominently pointed out to the customer, so he/she also wants to use it“.
However, despite all of the interactive services made possible by the digital medium, all parties agree that they should also include some direction offered by sales associates on the floor. “Associates should not let customers fend for themselves at the shelf“, emphasizes Nagel. This is why all employees should be trained to use the system and become familiar with the product portfolio. He adds, “Staff must be able to explain the system to consumers. That’s why know-how and training are vital. Needless to say, consultation at the terminal is ideal“.
Content: automated presentation through software solutions
Nowadays, software solutions bundle contents from various data sources, direct the essential contents onto the screens and offer additional space to accommodate the individual layouts of retailers. Through easy-to-use CMS (content management software) with optionally definable templates, they are able to adapt what appears on their screens on their own. Thomas-Peter Fischer of jumptomorrow explains, “Retailers can do this with minimal effort because all data flow is fully automated and the virtual shelf automatically turns on and off depending on the store’s opening hours“.
However, the systems still need development in some areas. According to Tobias Nagel of Online Software AG, “the technical implementation of the payment function is the key to making the application work. We still have to come up with great solutions to obtain a customer’s shipping address and complete the purchase process without forcing him/her to enter his/her data at the virtual shelf. This process should be as intuitive as possible“.
So what’s next?
The future of virtual shelves looks promising. “The virtual shelf is a channel that is flexible and can be extended by additional channels such as a customer app or digital signage,“ explains Thomas-Peter Fischer. This means that virtual shelves assist in implementing and expanding omnichannel projects in brick-and-mortar retail. Certainly a key success factor for competitive success against online retail and large-scale retailers.
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