When the pandemic first hit last year – virtually overnight – retailers across the country were forced to shut their doors. Now with the latest outbreak of the Delta variant prompting state governments to impose new restrictions, retailers in New South Wales and Victoria have found themselves once again in a similar situation.

Though physical spaces remain, a heavy dependence on eCommerce and remote capabilities has become the new standard for Australia’s retail sector. While the adoption of eCommerce is likely to remain the norm for consumers, the deep nostalgia for walking around stores and browsing product displays remains. In fact, research shows that 69% of consumers surveyed by Matterport miss this experience.

This presents retailers with a considerable challenge: how best to execute a retail strategy that caters to changing consumer preferences but also responds rapidly to unpredictable circumstances such as snap lockdowns and restrictions?

Embracing omni-possibilities

The omni-channel shopping experience is by no means a new concept. However, in the context of the pandemic, it has taken on a newfound degree of urgency, with many retailers’ survival hinged on how successfully they can merge the physical and online shopping experience.

As new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality continue to evolve, the possibilities for transforming the customer experience are endless. There are myriad such technologies being utilised in retail across online channels and brick-and-mortar stores.

Creating immersive digital twins of stores is one such example of this – an innovative solution which can preserve what consumers consider “the best parts of a retail experience” while still unlocking the possibilities offered by the retail of tomorrow. But the question is whether 3D experiences will be the lifeline for struggling merchants trying to stay relevant in an increasingly digitized landscape, forming a new frontier for brick-and-mortar stores.

Creating an immersive 3D retail experience

A common misconception is that any digital innovation in the retail sector will contribute to the demise of brick-and-mortar stores. However, 3D technology is more likely to form the connection between ecommerce and brick-and-mortar, ushering physical retail spaces into the shopping landscape of the future.

At a time when in-store browsing is not always possible, a 3D digital twin provides consumers with an immersive experience of a store, which they can explore freely and safely. In this way, digital twin technology has the potential to do to the retail sector what Apple has achieved with the iPhone. That is, completely revolutionise how we interact with one another, and brands.

But what exactly are digital twins?

To put it simply, digital twins are photorealistic and dimensionally accurate digital replicas of physical spaces – whether it be a room, an entire building, or an outdoor space. They bring any space to life, offering capabilities such as interactive virtual walk-throughs and providing an immersive and engaging experience that traditional 2D photos, floor plans and text simply cannot replicate.

Turning the built world into data

The application of 3D technology in retail extends far beyond creating new and engaging eCommerce experiences to connecting people with products. It can also be used to offer virtual views of in-store equipment, inventory, product selection and placement and POS displays to create a consistent brand experience across locations.

By providing a digital blueprint for other stores to replicate, retailers can ensure consumers receive a high-quality, omnichannel experience regardless of store layout, location, or design limitations.

The ability to capture space using this technology allows consumers to visualise the retail environment without being there in person. For example, visual data can be leveraged to plan, implement, and manage floor layouts and merchandising more efficiently than ever before.

Digital twins can also help retailers fulfil the demand for spaces that are more efficient, sustainable, and mindful of hygiene concerns while still creating an engaging environment.

Matterport research shows significant interest in 3D shopping, with 73% of respondents saying they would be interested in shopping in a 3D virtual space compared to an online store, Meanwhile, 63% of respondents felt that a 3D virtual store would provide a more exciting experience than traditional online shopping.

Staying ahead of the game

While virtual spaces offer enhanced marketing experiences, decrease physical foot traffic and help deliver innovative experiences, the real power lies in the insights that can be unlocked through the data they generate.

By investing in a transformative digital strategy, retailers can leverage the untapped opportunity that built-world data offers in terms of capturing new competitive advantages. In this way, using digital twin technology will not only future-proof the retail sector, but virtually every industry that requires physical space – particularly in today’s increasingly digital-first world.

Bruce Wells is managing director for Asia Pacific at Matterport.