NEXT: Africa’s fully immersive virtual mall set to launch in October

TF Virtual unpacks its virtual mall concept that will be going live in October with luxury and bespoke brands.

In mid-July, after months of research and design work, TF Virtual, a subsidiary of design company Trend Forward, announced the launch of a virtual mall that would be going live in October. In an unexpected turn of events, the Mall has already been sold to a company which specialises in promoting luxury brands throughout Africa; and the mall will now go under the name of Inspire Xclusives Virtual Mall. TF Virtual will continue with the development with the client and create unique spaces for the various brands that want to be a part of the mall. This new virtual space will showcase brands in a completely new and novel way, says Trend Forward founder, designer and Retailing Africa retail analyst, Dave Nemeth.

Please elaborate on the virtual mall concept?

The concept has proved exceptionally powerful in both virtual showrooms as well as virtual exhibition spaces. The quality of graphics is high, with the 3D environments being rendered in 8K, giving the sense of realism without replicating existing spaces via 360° photography, which is currently very common. This allows brands to really be creative when it comes to the design of their virtual spaces. The access to the mall will be via a URL (still to be announced) and will be able to be viewed on any device including smart phones. There are icons and hot spots throughout the mall which provides easy navigation, as well as other functions including videos, online shopping, brochure downloads, and so on, at the click of a button.

How do people engage in virtual environments?

It was very important to analyse the way people engage with virtual environments in order to ensure a seamless experience, with as few “clicks” as possible. It was also important to understand the current situation in brick and mortar stores and malls and this research showed some interesting changes in behaviour. Consumers have become more comfortable shopping online as well as researching products online. Total online sales in South Africa should reach about R42 billion in 2021, taking the online percentage of total retail to around 4%, assuming traditional retail returns to its previous growth path, as stated by World wide Worx.

Where does this leave bricks & mortar stores?

The reality is that brick and mortar stores will never disappear, and no virtual solution will ever replace the benefits of visiting a real store and handling products. Through some intense research some interesting facts raised their heads: foot traffic to malls and physical stores has reduced since the dreaded Covid pandemic. People shop with a purpose, meaning far less time is spent browsing and just looking at new products and stores. Mall landlords are becoming far more flexible with rents and leases, but these are still out of reach during this tough economic period.

How does the virtual mall compare with online shopping?

People are finding the experience of online shopping boring, regardless of the efficiency of this medium. They often spend a substantial amount of time trying to find exactly what they are looking for, only to find the product has not been updated and is no longer in stock. The virtual mall is in no way a replacement for bricks & mortar, but rather a gateway to get more feet to the physical store by showcasing exciting new lines, or limited editions in a new and interactive way. It will be a great substitute for those brands which cannot afford physical space, but it is also not a replacement for existing ecommerce sites. The mall will not be a portal for going to buy bread and milk, but rather a place to find artisanal cuisine and unique products. The mall will become the home ground for brands that want a concept store, which showcases the very latest products, or to simply test the market’s reaction to new product lines before investing in costly stock. The virtual spaces will be complimented with TV screens to show product videos or adverts. Products can be linked to existing ecommerce sites so that transactions can take place directly from the portal without any third party intervention.

What do brands get out of this?

Brands will have direct access to visitors of their space, be able to set up meetings, quote, run competitions or even run polls. All of this will be compliant with the current POPI act. The platform is great for B2B and B2C, as many B2B brands need to reach end consumers, even though they do not sell directly to them. Other features include direct feeds from social media within the portal, downloadable and viewable PDFs, 360° product photos or renders, explainer videos, and even product guide libraries, as well as brand web pages, which can be opened directly within the virtual store. The mall will have a directory available whereby brands will be featured in general areas. There is no restriction on business categories.

Please outline what products fit best into a virtual mall?

Clothing, sports, tech, appliances are the obvious ones; but there will be a space for services such as business coaches; and even a gym where personal trainers can promote their service offering. There will be an auditorium which will feature live music events; and offer the perfect opportunity for collaboration with radio stations, which can now expand their advertising offering to potential clients, while streaming shows and other content through the space. The design has taken into account the fact that products will need to be changed regularly and quickly, and this can be done without any interference or downtime.

What are the success metrics for a project like this?

Speed is one of the most important factors when creating something like this. People are not prepared to wait through loading times and this platform is going to be lightning fast. It is viewable on any device, from desktop to smartphone; and, for those who are into gaming, it can be viewed via VR Goggles. An added benefit for brands is that they will receive coding for their store, which will allow them to embed this directly into their website, or have VR Goggles or a big screen in-store which will showcase only their own space. (This is a value added benefit which comes at no extra cost). Each store will receive a unique QR code which can be housed on windows, or in existing showrooms, allowing visitors to view the unique offering by simply scanning the code on their mobile device.

What is your business model?

The business model is relatively simple. There is a fee for the initial setup of the 3D space, and there are a host of scenarios to choose from which will be uniquely branded. There is then a monthly fee, which is affordable even for a start-up business, and there are no lengthy contracts. Larger brands can have their stores completely designed from scratch to their own specifications. Brands which will be taking a premium package due to size, design, etc, will have the option of nominating a start-up business, or any other smaller retailer which will be covered by some of their higher monthly premiums, and we will match the balance to enable these smaller concerns to have a presence without having to spend a cent. During the investigation phase, some people asked why it had to look like a mall if it was a virtual entity? The answer came to us last year when we started launching virtual exhibitions. A host of different environments were tested, but only once it looked like a real exhibition did it gain buy-in and ultimately success. Humans are creatures of habit and, whilst the stores themselves can look like anything, we firmly believe that consumers will grasp the concept far better with a model with which they are currently familiar. The aim is to continually evolve and adapt.

What is unique about your concept?

To date we have not found anything similar to the Virtual Mall which we will be launching, elsewhere. Many companies currently advertising via a so-called virtual mall are, in fact, nothing more than a glorified product listing; or alternatively badly rendered spaces, which offer very little experience or true benefits for the brands.


Main image credit: TF Virtual.


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