Shopping is becoming a highly customized experience. After years of showrooming—defined as the habit of looking at products in person, in a store, then buying them cheaper online—the data-driven shopping experience is finally landing inside brick-and-mortar stores, too. And the lines between the physical and digital worlds are blurring.

In 2012, the Westfield Corporation, which owns and operates 40 shopping centers around the world, established a testing lab inside the Westfield San Francisco Centre to re-imagine the retail ecosystem and drive the future of shopping.

Fast Company put Westfield Labs at #36 on their 2015 list of 50 most innovative companies. The company slogan is “innovating the retail ecosystem by leveraging the social, mobile, and digital market opportunities that converge the digital shopper with the physical world.”

One big challenge for Westfield Labs is to understand how digital and brick-and-mortar shopping experiences can go hand in hand, and to run experiments that find solutions.

Perhaps the most well-known of the Labs’ experiments was their partnership with eBay: Large, interactive digital storefronts were installed in the Westfield shopping mall in San Francisco that gave consumers the opportunity to swipe through and buy curated merchandise from brands such as Sony, Rebecca Minkoff, and Toms via a shoppable window. Shoppers could pay with PayPal and arrange free home delivery or pick-up.


(Image courtesy of sanfranista)

Sounds fabulous, right? What the two partners actually learned from this pilot, though, was that the optimal mall screen should not be shoppable but rather kept to images of products from nearby stores that indicate where to find them. Why? Instant gratification. People visiting the mall want to buy something they can hold.

Ever heard of a tech co-working space inside a shopping mall? Welcome to the San Francisco Bay Area and project Bespoke, another experiment of the Westfield Corp. Bespoke offers a 35,000 square-foot co-working space for retail tech startups as well as hosts events such as fashion shows, hackathons, technology demos, and more.

With Bespoke and Westfield Labs, the company is encouraging innovation in online and offline shopping. And by letting brands lease small spaces inside the mall to test state-of-the-art technologies and new design elements, they are giving traditional retailers a safe environment to experiment with the technology of the future.

A personal, digital shopper

E-tailer (as opposed to retailer) Zappos is also trying to stay ahead of the curve and keep pace with the future of shopping. Known for its customer service, the stories of just how far Zappos will go to make a customer happy are legendary.

It didn’t come as a surprise when Zappos introduced a new service in 2014 called Ask Zappos, a digital personal assistant that takes requests from consumers in the form of images and finds the exact item they are looking for while also providing links to alternatives.


Speaking of customized services, San Francisco-based Stitch Fix is a personal styling platform that delivers curated and personalized apparel and accessories for women. You simply fill out the Stitch Fix Style Profile and personal stylists hand pick a “fix” of five clothing items and accessories unique to your taste and budget. You buy what you like and return the rest.

ThreadLab and Trunk Club, which was acquired by Nordstrom in 2014, are similar but for men. The latter lets you preview your “trunk“ before it ships.

Social shopping picks up steam

Wikipedia defines social shopping as e-commerce where shoppers’ friends become involved in the experience and where technology mimics the social interactions found in malls and stores.

In mid 2014, Amazon introduced a new feature that lets users add items to their shopping carts by including a hashtag within a tweet.

For Amazon, extending its reach into social hubs is an obvious strategy to defend against the rise of Pinterest and Instagram competition. Not to mention that social shopping carts have the added bonus of free advertising for Amazon, powered by tweets.

Pinterest is probably the biggest site where consumers share their wants, desires, and intentions. Instagram, meanwhile, gives users the ability to follow and interact with the shopping exploits of their friends, family members, and role models.

This summer, both have been rolling out new features: Pinterest’s Buy It button and Instagram’s Shop Now. And once Twitter more widely expands its Buy button, it will significantly shift that social network’s role in the relationship between consumers and businesses and further disrupt the way we think about path-to-purchase.

Companies like Free People, an American clothing retailer, are tapping into the power of social engagement for their brand and stores. Already a few years ago, Free People invited fans to upload pictures of their denim purchases to Instagram using the hashtag #MYFPDENIM.

This kind of crowdsourced campaign lets them aggregate photos onto a microsite. For consumers, they get to be a part of a campaign in which the best photo of the day is featured prominently online.

Zappos Labs has conducted online shopping experiments including a curated digital magazine, a recommendation engine based on Pinterest pins, and personal style recommendations based on Instagram posts.

Dubbed pinpointing, a Pinterest Shopping Companion Tool, Zappos makes product recommendations based on pins and boards.

Many new social shopping marketplaces such as Shopa, Shopcade, The Hunt, and Net-a-Porter’s new app Net Set have emerged as smartphone and tablet adoption have risen. Product Hunt has become the place to “share and geek out” on the latest apps and gadgets.

London- and New York-based Shopa, launched in 2012, rewards users with discounts for promoting products they like. Peter Janes, Shopa’s Founder and CEO, says, “The technology allows us to track everything that happens with regards to our retail partners products across any platform and device. Then we can feed that back to retailers. Basically in real-time we can show them who the top advocates are, which products are trending in real-time, which platforms deliver the best ROI, and we can track the whole process from a share to a purchase.”

According to Shopa, some studies suggest that a social recommendation of a product is 45x more effective in generating sales than any traditional marketing or advertising method.

With the popularity of Net Set and cult classics like The Hunt—a community-driven shopping experience that tracks down the items you covet but don’t know where to find—retailers are well on their way to encouraging more spending and to collecting ever more data on its burgeoning Millennial customer base, thanks to social e-commerce.

Net Set users can shop within the app, comment on styles they like, recommend fashions to friends, take a voyeuristic virtual peek into the closets of stylish women, follow a Style Council of 15 fashionistas, and join or create Style Tribes—groups within the app with common interests or aesthetics. The app also boasts image recognition, the holy grail for e-commerce.


So, just when we feared the death of brick and mortar stores, when we thought shopping malls were becoming passé and online shopping was getting dull, retailers are transforming.

Besides everything mentioned so far, Pop-up retail also emerged in a big way in recent years. Even e-commerce-only brands (Warby Parker, for example) have expanded into the physical space in unique forms.

Thanks to our social addiction, shopping is evolving even more into curious and exciting new territories to indulge the shopaholic within. Where and how will you shop next?