J. Crew Virtual Beach House.

Courtesy: J. Crew

In a brown shingle beach house tucked behind blades of reed grass, J. Crew customers encounter a new shopping experience.

Just past a set of wooden stairs and a wrap-around porch, shoppers can explore a series of white-paneled rooms, a shipyard and a secret lighthouse that highlight the brand’s history and some of its most beloved garments.

Inside the rooms, customers can browse jackets, sweaters and rugby shirts. Outside on the porch, bathing suits are displayed on a clothesline.

While customers can select and purchase items as they would at any J. Crew store, the Beach House has one major difference: It’s completely virtual.

To mark J. Crew’s 40th Anniversarybrand on Friday is launching its first immersive shopping experience with the Obsess e-commerce platform, which creates 3D virtual stores for retailers that customers can access from their phones or laptops.

Derek Yarbrough, chief marketing officer of J. Crew and Madewell, told CNBC that the company is planning a series of events to celebrate the brand’s anniversary. But they tend to be in places like New York and Los Angeles, which limits the number of people who can participate, he said.

“With Obsess, we were really looking for an exciting activation that we could do for a bigger audience and reach more people who love the brand in a bigger way,” Yarbrough said in an interview. “We really wanted it to be a passport to explore the world of J. Crew… and when the team was thinking about it, it was kind of pointless to have a beach house look.”

J. Crew Virtual Beach House.

Courtesy: J. Crew

Obsess was launched in 2017 by its CEO Neha Singh, ex Google software engineer. It aims to transform traditional online shopping into something more immersive so that customers stay engaged rather than lose interest as they endlessly scroll to the next purchase.

In Obsess virtual stores, customers can create their own avatars. Depending on the retailer, they can also play games that can unlock additional content, promotions or other bonuses that keep them in virtual stores longer, the company said.

“Our platform enables brands to create a much richer and more immersive digital experience that borrows from gaming,” said Singh. “Today, the experience is so generic. There’s really no difference between brands’ digital presence, other than font and color, but their physical retail presence is so different. So how can we bring some of those elements to the online environment?”

Virtual storefronts on the rise

Many merchants have seen meta versiona virtual world that offered another possible platform for selling products, e.g hot new technology all of last year. Many of those same companies have largely forgotten about it now, as advances in artificial intelligence have climbed to the top of business minds a year later.

While the metaverse may be dead — for now — virtual storefronts are growing. Obsess now operates more than 200 virtual stores that have been visited and purchased by tens of millions of shoppers.

The company’s clients include American Girl, Elizabeth Arden, Dior, Ralph Lauren, Corona, Laneige, CrocsCoach, MattelMaybelline, Johnson & Johnson and even NBCUniversal among others.

Virtual storefronts allow retailers to bring a meta version to their customers without needing to expensive headgear or another steep barriers to entry.

J. Crew Virtual Beach House.

Courtesy: J. Crew

“Technology never stops and will always evolve, but it has to be something that’s user-friendly, right? [the metaverse] they’re not user-friendly yet,” Singh said. “We started the company before the metaverse became a hot topic, and it was really just about: How can we use the latest technology to create a better customer experience?”

When e-commerce was born in the 1990s, Amazon led the way with its online bookstore, which featured white backgrounds and book icons with text describing them.

Since then, little has changed in the basic interface of online shopping.

“If you think about e-commerce, the typical interface today is a grid of thumbnails on a white background; whether you’re shopping for fashion, beauty or home, it’s really the same,” Singh said. “The interface looks like a database that hasn’t really changed in 25 years [since] was first created.”

Gamify shopping, boost engagement

Shoppers who head into the J. Crew virtual store can access a number of interactive games, including a scavenger hunt and a catalog cover quiz where customers will be asked to guess what year they were released.

After going through all the rooms and completing the quests, shoppers will gain access to a secret lighthouse.

J. Crew Virtual Beach House.

Courtesy: J. Crew

“We’re actually seeing a 10x higher add-to-cart rate if people engage with the game and complete it. So typically now, all of our virtual stores have some element of gamification and it’s kind of naturally built into the flow of the store,” Singh said.

“The more interesting you can make the experience and keep people engaged and give them content and give them games, the more they’ll buy,” she said.

Some companies offer discounts or promotions as a “prize” for completing a game, which could help increase checkout rates.

Obsess said that one of its customers, a luxury jewelry brand, reported that the average value of an order in its virtual store was 111% higher than in a traditional e-store.

But J. Crew’s Yarbrough said he’s most excited about how long the virtual store can keep customers engaged.

J. Crew Virtual Beach House.

Courtesy: J. Crew

In the American Girl virtual store, for example, shoppers spend an average of six to 10 minutes per session, which is 1,000% longer than the average time spent by all shoppers on the company’s website, Obsess reported.

One luxury fashion brand reported that the amount of time people spent in its virtual store was 74% higher than the time spent in a traditional e-shop, Obsess reports. Overall, the introduction of avatars increases time spent by an average of 73%, and when customers create an avatar, they are on average 184% more likely to proceed to checkout, Obsess said.

“In today’s landscape, it’s so hard to not only get, but keep people’s attention — you usually get a few seconds,” Yarbrough said. “So if I can actually get someone to engage in the experience for a few minutes or longer, oh my gosh, that’s such a rich opportunity to really engage someone.”

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC.

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