Local Online Shopping Brings Buyers to Vendors Via Video Chat

Video chat is bringing a new dimension to local online shopping

Only the natural sunlight of a clear morning can do justice to the baked goods, produce, and works of art on display at a local farmer’s market or craft fair. Along with the chance you’ll find something unique, the open-air environment and the gentle pace it encourages is the real attraction.

That’s especially true if you’re stuck in a dreary city somewhere and yearning for a little rural escape. Now, with the advance of internet communications, there’s a chance you could disappear down a smartphone-sized hole and pop up far away in front of a pile of freshly baked cookies at a genuine country market stall.

All it takes to get you there is the refining of a new international-scale wifi project. With a webcam, a subtle antenna, and the patience to deal with city-types, small town market operators could turn their traditional craft into a new form of local online shopping.

Linking Thai Markets to Online Customers

The project in question is a new venture between a group of Malaysian video conferencing researchers and the traders at Thailand’s huge Chatuchak market. The company Mlabs is currently planning to bring large-scale, free wifi to the market’s traders to let them meet overseas bulk buyers face-to-face online and do what they do best–bargain. In addition, the service will include e-commerce programs to enable live financial transactions.

The market currently attracts more than 200,000 visitors each day of its weekend operations, around a third of whom are tourists. It is famed for its antique wood carvings and furniture, but its own advertising promises everything from outdoor plants to fluffy dogs.

With the video conferencing equipment in place, shoppers are able to view goods live on screen before buying and bargaining. In return, the traders on the ground get to expand their customer base across the globe, and prove the quality of their product on an individual basis, strengthening their ability to get special prices for standout goods, and not resorting to standardized prices established in advance by phone or email.

This new wifi venture is obviously B2B-focused, but we’re imagining a business-to-consumer model as well. The technology required for such a feat is readily available. Which is why there’s a chance it may sometime become available at more domestic locations.

Bringing Video Conferencing Outdoors

Despite the crude nicknames you may have for your internet provider, the U.S. is blessed with comprehensive internet coverage–around two-thirds of households have wifi. It’s the speed department that’s not so great. We rank well outside the top 20 fastest mobile internet connections in the world, sitting in the mid-30s at an average speed of 12.5 Mbps, less than a third of that enjoyed by South Koreans.

But that’s an average speed, drawn from a large country–nearly 100 times bigger than South Korea, just for comparison’s sake. What’s crucial to our dreams of reproducing Thailand’s e-commerce market within small country markets is that the technology to bring wifi to a specific location is neither difficult to find or expensive.

If you’re willing to wait a few years, Microsoft may do it for you as part of its pledge to connect 2 million rural Americans to high-speed wireless broadband by 2022. If that’s too long a wait, there are alternatives such as satellite connections that can be operated from anywhere, or ways of boosting signals from nearby terminals usually located around post offices and telephone exchanges.

That means it may be possible, right now, to establish a real-time, face-to-face connection to local farmers’ markets and flea markets across the country.

Local Online Shopping Comes to Markets

With a central wifi service on site, and a webcam hooked up to a battery-powered laptop, any market trader can turn their business into an online shopping destination equipped with live video chat. It’s true that those low wifi speeds are going to restrict the quality of a video call to the lower end of HD standards, something like 780p. But that’s still good enough for remote shoppers, who will login to the market’s website and click on a direct link to a particular trader, the same way people currently get instant online advice from a bank with a live video portal.

The realities of delivering goods across the country also means, of course, that this online service will work best for vendors selling non-perishable items like jewelry, woodcrafts, and pottery, although anyone within the reach of UberRush could enjoy freshly baked bread the same day. The service would let shoppers buy local goods that might usually be sold too far away to drive to, maybe at that flea market an hour outside town, or at the farmer’s market on Wednesday nights that you don’t get out of work soon enough to make it to.

The real joy of this future shopping experience, however, will be the setting and the access to handmade items from anywhere. Whereas today’s online shopping is more about still photos and mass-produced goods, a virtual visit to a local market will be an enjoyable trip into the countryside–or anywhere–to find items you can’t get anywhere else.

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