Winning with virtual malls

Why 3D is still in the distant future for winning with e-commerce

It’s been quite a while since some of us have stepped into a mall because of Covid-19. While malls are might be opening in some parts of the world, even there footfalls are still down. After all you really wouldn’t want to breathe in that regurgitated air in the midst of a pandemic. This causes a dilemma for retailers. What do you do when you have shopping festivals like The Great Singapore Shopping Festival (GSS) or the Dubai Shopping Festival or festival themed shopping events like Diwali and Christmas on the horizon. While e-commerce is the only avenue, how do you really bring the “mall experience”, to your desktop? This week the GSS did try to make this a reality with a website that creates a 3D environment that interlinks several web destinations and using 360° photography to recreate the interior of shops. Which all in all was quite a good effort. Would it lead to direct sales? Maybe not. Here’s why.

When it comes to making the jump from a traditional e-commerce experience to one in 3D the novelty of the experience needs to be balanced with the easy of use and the confidence of the customer in making a purchase in a completely different checkout process. Which is why sites try to create a 3D experience to entice viewers but take them back to familiar territory of a traditional e-commerce shopping basket when it is time to check out. The problem I anticipate is that switching between these two environments can be a bit of a jar to the user and might just lead to a fair amount of abandoned shopping baskets. Time will tell. 

Ease of navigation is even more important when it comes to building a 3D e-commerce site. In all fairness the site has a band of logos at the bottom that allows you to navigate to respective shops. But the user is encouraged to literally walk through the experience instead. It took me a while to realise that I could navigate the GSS Centrum Furniture site using arrow keys (this information was tucked way and not on the initial overlay). The site designers have tried to streamline your journey by using waypoints – which in essence puts your entire journey through this virtual mall on rails. In fact, you literally glide through this empty mall. While there might be slight changes in the level of the flooring and such, the camera angle / height from the floor remains a constant and this results in a floating sensation. Like a wraith flying through a ghost mall. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

Having a full-blown product catalogue in 3D and navigating through it is another challenge. While there are a few furniture items recreated in 3D at what appears to be the reception area, most of the site relies on photography of showrooms to showcase products and complements this with traditional 2D images or just directly linking it to product description pages on existing e-commerce sites.

All in all, I think the GSS Furniture Centrum site is a step in the right direction when trying to integrate 3D into e-commerce. Sure, there are things that could be improved. Some of the store front images are so out of sync with the perspectives of the rest of the experience that you can instantly feel the jarring of an ill-placed texture. The store fronts do have individual 3D elements in the front to differentiate them, so that no two stores look identical. But what would have made them really stand out was to have more depth in the doorways, creating the illusion of you peering into the store. The half-hearted attempt at gamification that was slapped on should definitely be ditched.

The icing on the cake of this experience is truly the size. Its bang on. Big enough to give you space to wander, small enough to ensure you don’t feel weary with the system to jump to any of the shops with a click. At first, I wondered why you had to have such a small virtual experience? I am instantly drawn to the difference between Singapore malls and Indian malls. The former maximises their space with narrower walkways while Indian malls opt for wider corridors and empty areas within. Now if you had to create an Indian mall in a virtual space the navigation would become a lot more tedious. Too much of the zoom and fade effect to hop from one waypoint to the other would become irritating very quickly. I mean there are already the interiors of some Indian malls on google maps. You know how annoying moving through those can get. This is not moving a character around like in a game. Speaking of which, the GSS experience is a far cry from creating the kind of shops you find in games. Calling it a gaming experience like some people have would also be a misnomer.  

Thinking about it though, gaming has provided us with some excellent experiences and inspiration when it comes to virtual shops. There’s a shop or a market to be found in most games these days. While a common occurrence in RPG games, they are now found in everything from third person games to firs-person shooters. At the top of the mind I remember the detailed bustling market in Marrakesh from the Hitman game, the small shops of Horizon Zero Dawn or the stores found in Dishonoured or Borderlands series. There are so many ripe examples. These shopping experiences use the same principles of mixing 2D screens and elements with 3D elements, often mixed with some narrative too. There is always a virtual shop front with a friendly virtual shopkeeper that makes just the right amount of small talk. Its immersive and the blend of 2D grid based inventory systems have become a time tested format.

We are still a way off from creating design systems that we can reuse when it comes to integrating 3D, whether it is AR, gaming or web 3D into a retail workflow. The GSS site places a  stake in the ground, hoping that other developers can learn from its success and failures to better improve such experiences. And we are grateful for that.

Lastly, I leave you with this thought that I touched upon a little earlier. The validity of the idea. During this Covid-19 pandemic people have been starved for their regular dose of socialisation. So how attractive then is wandering through an empty mall? Unless you are able to see some kind of representation of other virtual shoppers, its not going to be a faithful recreation of shopping in the real-world. It’s after all one of the factors why people flock to malls. Sure you get to see a lot of shops to compare products. But it’s the bustle of the shopping experience in a mall or superstore that adds to the visceral experience. Sometimes the urge to shop is triggered by those around you.  

The marketed mind in Madurai

The marketed mind in Madurai

A few months ago I moved to Madurai with my parents, taking a sabbatical from my career in advertising. A drastic change some would think after having stayed 13 years in India’s most bustling metropolis- Mumbai. Someone called Madurai a village city and that is an appropriate description. For those of you who don’t know Madurai, it’s located about six hours away from Tamil Nadu and Bangalore by road. It is otherwise known as the Temple City being famous for the Meenakshi Temple which is the city’s landmark. So join me for a few observations on mystical Madurai and how to make your mark in marketing here.

Aesthetics & the South Indian mind

Before I even begin to touch on the various aspects of how marketing in Madurai is different from the metros, it is critical to understand that there is quite a difference in aesthetics. I think is noticeable in any city if you keep your eyes peeled when you drive from the airport to your destination. There are tell-tale signs. The first is the hoardings. You notice that bright contrasting colours are a norm, as are thick strokes and painted drop shadows. You will find quite a few hand painted signs here still, while there are vinyl printed signs in the more populated areas.

The love for bright and somewhat garish colours is also evident if you have an opportunity to glimpse into people’s homes. Shades of bright pink or luminous green is not uncommon here, both inside or outside your home. Local painters often balk at painting light shades like cream, (a challenging task for my mother) and they do so with a lot of reluctance.

The concept of whitespace is also quite alien in some of these locally painted signs. The fact that the Tamil font is so cursive is probably a reason for this. You get the feeling though that space is a premium

So in short if you need to do something that looks local, you can’t go wrong with the simple formula of – thick borders or strokes in white or black, black drop shadows, lettering that is coloured with two colours horizontally, all on a nice garish backdrop.

But that’s not all. One interesting piece of artwork that glaringly stands out is found on the road. You may notice that some long distance buses bear some interesting visuals on its sides. I was quite amazed to see colourful and realistic paintings of movie characters like the Navi from Avataar and even Japanese Manga characters. A sign of the changing aesthetic? Perhaps, only time will tell.

Retail in Madurai

Madurai has always been known for small shops on narrow bustling streets that you tackle once the searing heat abates as the sun sets. The heart of the city near the Meenakshi Temple is where you venture for anything you need. This is an area crowded with small shops and hotels. Years ago you wouldn’t quite conceive that shopping formats like retail stores or brand outlets would crop up in Madurai. Now you have a Big Bazaar, Reliance Retail and a Spencer’s outlet here apart from some local chains. While local chains try to mimic larger retail stores they do have hang-ups from their small store operations.

One example is the payment system that I noticed in a large local department store. While you have a modernised checkout counter with a person equipped with a bar code reader, the actual payment is entrusted to a common cashier. This means that you make a bill at the checkout counter and then proceed to another counter to pay the bill. The number of cashiers is less than the number of checkout counters, which naturally causes a bottleneck. This is also true in medical stores where one person finds the medicine, another person bills it, then a cashier and a person who hands over the medicine finally. Why this arrangement you ask? I would guess that it’s a matter of trust and some weird check and balance for inventory management. The result though seems to defeat the purpose of the retail format. Also eliminating the entire concept of last minute purchases at the checkout counter.

Another observation is the number of people that are manning these retails stores. In most other cities, most large retail stores are self-serving. While there are a number of shop assistants to help you if you need something, in Madurai, there seems to be markedly more people per square foot of retail space.

On the whole though, Madurai is still about individual retail outlets rather than malls. While money is being invested in the aesthetics of the retail space, more often than not the products are expected to sell themselves. Sales personnel are not very vocal about their spiel. The salient features of a product or a product range needs to be coaxed out of them. This is probably a remnant of over the counter sales mentality that comes from running a small shop. In fact sometimes they come across as being quite adamant that one should just pick up a product that they are referring too. This said that you might be surprised to find a wide variety of brands and merchandise that you may think is only available in a metro. This is thankfully due to retail penetration no doubt.

Advertising in Madurai

From the look of it, you can guess by now how advertising in Madurai looks different. You will see the same font and colour palette treatment. What in my opinion doesn’t work though is when you see the occasional piece of retail material or signage that has something in Hindi in it. This is a complete waste of advertising space. Probably conceived by an agency in Mumbai or Delhi for a national campaign, the message is completely lost on locals. There are very few people here who could understand Hindi, lest read it. On tv most advertising for the South Indian market is done on Sun tv and other channels that have Tamil content. At the same time there is a small group of people who consume English channels. The problem is that you notice a lot of Hindi ads being displayed on these channels, but no content that is tailored for the South Indian market. I guess the numbers don’t add up for the media planner, but it does seem to be an untapped opportunity at some level as well. It is also to see English words written in Tamil. Useless to a person who can’t read both Tamil and English. This is just as bad as English words written in Hindi. How do these trends catch on?

The T-Shirt trend

The winds of change are blowing though Madurai though. Madurai airport is now an international airport with direct flights to Sri Lanka and Dubai, so go figure. Madurai now has a movie multiplex – an Inox nonetheless (though tickets here are much cheaper than in any other city mind you). Another thing you may notice on the streets is that nobody seems to be wearing collarless t-shirts, or printed ones. But the retail stores seem to be overflowing with them. And then you watch a movie and notice that its catching on with the college crowd who seem to wear it like a sign of the changing times and needs.

Digital in Madurai

The pinnacle of change is perhaps digital penetration. You now find e-commerce ventures that are being home brewn here. You can now supposedly order your groceries online and have them home delivered here in Madurai. The infrastructure is improving. The broadband speeds are quite good here in Madurai and compete with what you find in metros. Added to this smartphone usage is up and obviously growing. Apparent by the number of new mobile stores that you see here.

What you don’t see

Well a fitting end to this article is what you don’t see selling in Madurai and what are possible marketing opportunities. Madurai has quite a few colleges, but the café culture hasn’t caught on. You don’t see any of the common India coffee chains like Café Coffee Day or Barista here, let alone the more flamboyant ones. You don’t find any large bookshops here, the only Higginbotham is painfully derelict. While there are few fastfood outlets, the characteristic home-delivery scooters or motor bikes are apparently absent whizzing through traffic.