Video Conferencing Booths in Malls Could Let Small Retail Businesses Compete with Established Brands

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video conferencing and small business

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of finding something you didn’t know you were looking for. In the retailer’s world it’s called impulse buying, but when you’re the lucky shopper that just spotted that perfect birthday present a week before a cake is ever baked, there’s nothing impulsive about it.

Serendipity? Luck? Maybe, but more likely it’s your keen eye and subconscious vigilance that made sure you saw that special something while you were out buying the everyday odds and ends that lured you to the mall or Main Street in the first place.

It’s these moments that make retailers flock together in mega malls and shopping strips the world over. There’s strength in numbers, and it’s far easier to get a customer to fork out for a shiny trinket when they’ve already got their wallet out thanks to your neighbour.

However, space in that mall comes at a premium, and while online retail can give any would-be business owner a platform, it’s hard to catch a wandering eye that doesn’t know where to look. So what does that mean for the smallest of small businesses?

The Intersection of Video Conferencing and Small Business

If the problem here is the cost of retail space, why don’t we simply shrink that space? Given the continuing advances in video conferencing would it not be possible to create a simple kiosk or phone-booth style stand that brought the wares of any small business owner into the biggest mall?

While storefronts are leased by the square foot with costs measured in the hundreds of thousands–and developers are far more likely to favor an established brand–a small kiosk arrangement can be available for under $1,000 a month and could generate lease income from a spot otherwise lost to foot traffic.

And the basic technology is already widely available. A good webcam will provide quality audio and picture at an arm’s length distance to allow the customer to chat with the business owner while browsing their wares. A point of sale marketing setup no more elaborate than a juice stand, and a cosy design of three or four screens set around a site no bigger than a cafeteria table could give small businesses a chance to benefit from the retail flow through the most exclusive mall or shopping center.

Taking things a step further, with a scanner installed within a stylized fitting room the customer could send their exact measurements directly to the seamstress, furniture maker, or jeweller. And a portable holographic projector could send a 3D image of any sales items into the customer’s hands, allowing them the brick-and-mortar experience of handling the object of their affection.

Better Than the Do-It-Yourself Internet

Such a setup would allow the smallest of home businesses – the makers of handmade dolls, the creators of jewelry or pottery – to add a dynamic and personal element to their otherwise static and hard-to-find web pages. With video chat technology providing a direct link to the business owner available right alongside the computer display, there’s a quick, straight-forward way to find out if that shoe also comes in black.

It’s the kind of instant, human feel a standalone website just can’t recreate. While many web design companies may offer to build a functional website for your business, purchasing ads online is expensive, and drawing traffic to your shiny new site takes time and effort.

However, by co-opting the existing technology of videoconferencing and placing it within the traditional retail hotspots, any business would be able to find a voice among the giants. Because despite the hype surrounding the growth of online retail, the brick-and-mortar crowd is still getting more than 90% of the total retail dollar spent in the U.S. Malls and shopping strips continue to dominate, largely because customers, even millennials, are still drawn to the opportunity of touching and physically connecting with products.  

Unique Treasures on Tour

A little social networking, even the old fashioned person-to-person kind, could generate a partnership between local small businesses to share the cost of this type of teleconferencing setup. Each business could take ownership of a single screen within a small cluster, or the whole operation could be dedicated to a single business on a rotating basis, perhaps with a common sales team to guide shoppers through the possibilities in person.

And, of course, the location and quantity of the kiosks could build substantially through a network of small businesses. Using a rotating policy, the handmade teddy bears of a person in Cleveland could be on display in a mall in Los Angeles one week, New York the next, and Chicago after that, allowing small business America to tour the country.

Similar public internet and technology spaces already exist in airports, libraries, and of course shopping malls. With a little effort and creativity, that next great shopping find could be truly one of a kind.

Image source: Flickr CC user Patrick Nouhailler

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