Modelling a handbag before buying it, examining the quality of a fine silk scarf, getting your friend's opinion on a new outfit - it is amazing how many real-world retail experiences can now be emulated on a mobile phone or tablet. This whole space is booming, with exciting young companies doing really ground-breaking work to make shopping in the virtual world as engaging, interactive and convenient as it can be in the real world. At THE NET-A-PORTER GROUP, our in-house mobile team has been at the cutting edge of building apps, learning exactly how our customers want to browse, shop and interact with content from their smartphones and tablets. Here are just some of the most exciting ways I see luxury shopping evolving in the virtual, mobile world:
1. Shopping on the go gets faster and more exciting
Gone are the days of only shopping at lunchtime on my desktop. With my smartphone and tablet, I can access everything I need, whether for work or leisure, whenever is most convenient for me. I'm definitely not alone here. In fact, global mobile data traffic grew 70% in 2012. With the promise of greater availability of 4G, the online experience is getting faster and that means we can offer an increasingly interactive luxury user experience. Take the MR PORTER TUX app; it's a magazine, but not as you know it. The user can be 'driven' around in style following the video interludes, or they can choose to fast track to specific areas of the app using the map feature. Touches of "gamification" like this are only possible with the fastest mobile internet.
In some markets, specifically the Far East, mobile networks are faster and more reliable than broadband. This is creating a unique opportunity to reach new customers in far and wide places.
2. Exploring the look and feel of products reaches a new level
One of the traditional barriers to online shopping has been the fact that consumers like to hold items in their hands and examine the quality up close. Clever technologies, such as the Retina screen of the iPad, are helping the most innovative in the industry to experiment with things like textured screens to emulate the feel of items. There's huge potential for this in the luxury market and we're already producing applications that allow users to examine the products up close to explore the smallest detail, giving the impression that they are actually moving, touching and interacting with items. In one of our most recent MR PORTER apps, we offered users the experience of viewing their reflection in a watch, hearing the creak of leather as they open a leather wallet and stroking a velvet slipper.
3. Making mobile more personal
Just as luxury shop assistants learn customers' tastes, online retailers can and are already starting to successfully replicate this. Every little bit of information gathered, from social media to geo-location data, can help luxury retailers to better understand their customers and tap into local trends, offering customers an individual experience tailored to their tastes. Integration with other web services such as weather forecasts or travel websites, could also offer users bespoke recommendations according to factors that will affect them geographically.
4. The social sharing experience
Shopping always has, and possibly always will, be a social experience. As consumers, we value the opinions of friends, family, colleagues and appreciate their opinions before pulling out a credit card. The virtual shopping space is no different, seeing reviews and recommendations from people we know helps us to make decisions and can be the difference between buying and not buying an item. eBay predicts social media will influence £3bn of retail sales, suggesting this will be the next big thing for the industry. At NET-A-PORTER we developed an internal project to show employees which products were popular across the world. People who walked by the office and saw the screens became so entranced with them that we decided to integrate it into our website and launched NET-A-PORTER LIVE in 2011. Now users can view a real-time ticker at the bottom of the NET-A-PORTER homepage that allows customers to see the latest trends from across the world.
5. Wearable tech marries physical and digital worlds
With Google Glass in advanced development, it's not inconceivable that consumers will soon be able to see a virtual item in augmented reality right before their eyes, without even taking out a mobile device. In terms of luxury shopping, this has huge potential. The glasses could conjure up an item for closer inspection, scan QR codes or add items directly to a shopping basket on the go.
And what about other types of wearable technology? Think about what Nike learns about its customers from the success of Nike's FuelBand. Apple's iWatch and similar products will add a further dimension to wearable technology, providing a layer of interaction between the technology and user to truly merge the physical and digital words. This will allow retailers to know insightful things about their users, such as how active they are and their most travelled routes.
Of course, it's easy to get carried away with the possibilities of new technologies but the key thing with all of these developments is that they're inspiring, engaging and truly enhance consumers' lives. While some of us are not yet prepared to go shopping in a virtual world, it's a safe bet that as the next generation of tablet-loving teens grows up, the mobile shopping world will blossom and continue to transform shopping habits.