Will the future of e-commerce look more like Xbox Live than Amazon?

Digital tools could enable online shopping that more closely replicates the bricks-and-mortar experience

What was once a social event has become a solitary endeavour. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we shop, with some jurisdictions limiting excursions to one shopper, per household. That’s if shops are even open at all.

From the comfort of our living rooms, we browse Amazon, Etsy, and local small businesses. And we buy even more than we did before. Online shopping offers us convenience, but it comes at the expense of the social side of the experience. Shoppers can no longer wander the concourse of a mall with a few friends, try on a dozen different outfits, and rely on their counsel about what is in vogue, and what is passé.

It is only one of the many ways that our social lives have been disrupted since the beginning of the pandemic, and in this case, the social loss comes with a financial toll too. When people shop with their friends, they are happier and more satisfied with the experience. They spend more time shopping – and they ultimately spend more money.

The reasons for this are more obvious in some sectors than others – a solo diner is far more likely to go for a utilitarian food court meal than splurge on a five-course meal in an upscale restaurant. But it also has implications for retailers of clothing, accessories, and cosmetics.

Each of these retail sectors might benefit from online experiences that enable ways for groups of friends to shop together – even when they can’t physically be together. And we already have all of the technology we need to enable this type of online social shopping experience; we just aren’t using it that way at scale.

Video conferencing and voice chat technologies are already widely used to connect, especially by young people. The popular social network Discord uses a combination of instant messaging and voice chat to connect individuals, small groups of friends, and larger groups in password-protected chat rooms called servers. Discord users can easily share their screens with others and share their opinions about what they are seeing in real-time.

Gamers are also networking in this way. Worldwide, there are millions of people who use services like Xbox Live to play video games together. They invite friends to multi-player games and can create voice chat “parties” where users discuss gaming and other topics while playing together.

Will the future of online shopping look less like Amazon, and more like an Xbox Live party? In the Master of Management in Retailing (MMR) program at McGill’s Bensadoun School of Retail Management, we explore questions like these, and consider how new technologies could shape the retail sector in unexpected ways.

Our research has already shown that when consumers shop online, they seek many of the same things that they do in bricks-and-mortar shops. They want a good selection and good value. Online social shopping experiences could be a similarly unrecognized need. As social networking and e-commerce technologies collide, the result could be a social shopping experience that looks a little more like the in-person experience of the very recent past, with the added benefits that online shopping can deliver.

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