The last 12 months have seen a massive turn to e-commerce, but the experience of much browser-based shopping remains highly unfulfilling. Now brands like Pangaia, with help from the Fashion Innovation Agency and technologists AnamXR, are exploring what it means to make buying online as captivating as it is convenient. 

By any statistical measure, last year was transformative for online shopping. Looking at the trajectory of e-commerce penetration in the US since 2009, McKinsey estimates that just the first three months of 2020 accounted for a decade’s worth of growth. That pattern continued. According to eMarketer, year-on-year US e-commerce sales by value were up 45 per cent in Q2 and 37 per cent in Q3. It was the same story the world over. The UK is forecast to see a 35 per cent growth in e-commerce for the calendar year. 

We may have grown much more experienced at buying via browser, but what about the quality of that experience? While e-commerce undoubtably scores points for convenience, you’d be hard pressed to find many who would describe the online shopping journey as truly enjoyable. Indeed, given how well Amazon did during the pandemic (tripling its Q3 profits compared to 2019), you can assume that many of us have been lost in the same loop of search bars, thumbnails and product text that have been the lowest common denominator of e-commerce interfaces since their inception. 

McKinsey estimates that just the first three months of 2020 accounted for a decade’s worth of e-commerce growth

The challenge for 2021, then, will be to make finding products online as engaging as it is efficient. To do that, brands are going to have to invest in developing what some describe as ‘experiential e-commerce’ platforms. (We acknowledge that some find the use of ‘experiential’ in a retail context redundant). What that means in practice is yet to be resolved, but as with their brick-and-mortar counterparts, the focus will be on elevating the merely transactional to something more surprising, entertaining and educational. 

Those three parameters were central to what apparel brand Pangaia set out to achieve when it commissioned London College of Fashion’s Fashion Innovation Agency (FIA) and digital retail studio AnamXR to design an online experience for its latest FLWRDWN range. The outcome puts a stake in the ground for how brands can present their narrative universe online. For Pangaia, that’s more important than most. Rather than some marketing-team fever dream, the company’s story is one of material scientists trying to craft a more sustainable future for the fashion industry. Its message is both highly technical and highly emotive; that requires the sort of attention rarely commanded by a product gallery. 

Pangaia has developed a vegan, non-polluting alternative to traditional insulators such as goose down or polyester made from flowers. Photos courtesy of Pangaia.

Visitors to Pangaia’s microsite find themselves standing in a dome tent, from which they step out into the Antarctic wilderness. In the distance they can see items of apparel floating above the landscape. On-screen prompts suggest that they ‘collect’ certain items. From there, they’re largely free to wander. As they move throughout the space they’re confronted with various forms of media, from 3D product models to educational animations. It’s this element of unguided discovery that structures and differentiates the concept. ‘E-commerce is a very sanitized experience,’ explains FIA technology development manager Moin Roberts-Islam. ‘Experiential e-commerce should really bring back that element of serendipity. Here the user can navigate at their own pace, see the bits they want to see and skip the bits they want to skip, which means there’s more room for the unexpected.’ 

The fashion game

The way the platform is designed leans a lot more on precedents set in gaming and spatial design than e-commerce. For AnamXR, who did the technical heavy lifting, the watchwords were tempo and atmosphere rather than click-through and conversion. One of the core challenges in making this journey of discovery feel natural was working through the UX design. The user needed to feel grounded without losing all sense of agency. After all, a key affordance of using this type of platform is the way it breaks the linearity of most browser-based shopping experiences. Pril’s reference points here extended to urban design and theme park layout. ‘If you look at something like Disneyland, it’s designed as a wagon wheel where there’s a central hub that acts as a beacon that visitors can alway orient against.’ Environmental factors such as lighting and sounds are also used, firstly for immersion, but also to highlight areas of interest that draw you forward. 

Image courtesy of AnamXREven though users can end up at a checkout if they so wish, the real trick was in incentivizing them, first and foremost, to learn about the principles and technologies that drive the brand.  ‘We’ve certainly incorporated some of that gaming psychology, especially with regards to creating purpose and guiding someone through a space using those mechanisms,’ says cofounder Matthew Pril. Key to this was creating a reward structure. ‘We incorporated the concepts of easter eggs, little hidden moments that somebody who's really paying attention will notice. For a user who’s gone through and seen all the products, seen the educational points, these then add up to that final victory at the end.’ What Pril is referring to is a dancing yeti that users are guided towards once they’ve absorbed enough snippets of information. The character was inspired by a song Pangaia was already developing for its TikTok channel, creating a neat tie through. As Irene-Marie Seelig, AnamXR’s other founder, notes, this gaming-inflected approach to e-commerce aligns particularly well with the way younger consumers are exploring a more digital future for fashion, with identities that blend seamlessly across social and gaming networks. 

Selling the surreal

What’s the next frontier for this type of activation? While the chilly isolation of Pangaia’s snowscape fits with the products it’s presenting, surely one of the key benefits of building a retail platform within a game engine is its potential for making e-commerce more of a shared experience? This is something that AnamXR is currently developing. ‘We're looking at adding a multiplayer aspect where the brand can insert ambassadors such as sales assistants or influencers,’ says Seelig. For Moin another emphasis needs to be on ‘squad shopping’: ‘so you can go online with your friends and experience the same thing in real time and exchange what you think about it’. That would also require customers to have their own avatar, which offers yet more opportunities for brands to help shape their digital presence…and to sell. ‘We’ve found that people don’t always want that to be truly representative of themselves,’ Moin reveals. ‘But if the avatar has the same body type and dimension it means you can build in digital fit, so shoppers can realistically try on these garments as part of the virtual experience’. 

Image courtesy of AnamXR

Indeed, dancing yetis and the sound of ice crystals aside, this does remain a product showcase. Three-dimensional product models aren’t anything new, but brands are still waking up to their potential. ‘Fidelity has 100 per cent been the biggest barrier for brands, especially on the luxury side,’ says Moin. ‘That fidelity is there now, so it’s much easier to have those conversations than it was maybe three or four years ago.’ This isn’t just a creative ‘nice to have’; there’s a clear business case. ‘A few years ago we worked with a luxury handbag retailer,’ Moin explains, though he can’t name names. ‘Its website had standard product images. We went in and stitched together some 3D models, created something a bit more interactive in terms of being able to rotate the bag, look inside and so on. The click through rate increased between 20-40 per cent.’

Fidelity has 100 per cent been the biggest barrier for brands

The FIA have done their own research into how consumers respond to immersive digital retail experiences such as that which they’ve build for Pangaia: 90 per cent of respondents said that they helped them understand the designer better, 77 per cent said they made them feel closer to the designer,  and 78 per cent said that knowing that core narrative behind the product added positive value to the garments. ‘Ultimately, they’re willing to pay more,’ says Moin. What the team want the FLWRDWN project to prove is that product fidelity doesn’t have to constrain the wider potential of experiential e-commerce. That’s Seelig’s hope, which is why AnamXR doesn’t push photorealism in its work, but rather what she terms ‘cinematic realism’. Moin agrees with that approach: ‘The tricky bit is to persuade the early adopters to step away from the default of just recreating the real world. The assets can remain the same – that’s your brand – but everything that surrounds it can be redefined.’