Debenhams Gets Clever About Mobile Invisible Pop-Up Stores

In unrelated trials this week, Debenhams—the UK's second-largest department store—and eBay are trying to push the mobile limits of creating stores with no physical infrastructure. But unlike Web sites, these virtual stores exist in a specific place to which customers must travel. In Debenhams' case, a human being at that location would see nothing, except other human beings oddly pointing their phones around the sky.

The virtual store is not new. In a much publicized trial this summer, Tesco re-created almost all of the merchandise from one of its stores as a series of high-res photographs with QR codes on the walls of a South Korean subway. But the Debenhams' effort takes it farther than any other retailer.

At least consumers arriving at that subway would see pictures of products and could guess what to do. In the Debenhams' trial, consumers were directed to very prominent street corners in London (Trafalgar Square), Manchester (Albert Square), Birmingham (Centenary Square), Cardiff (Cardiff Castle) and Glasgow (George Square). They then loaded a mobile app onto their phones. If the geolocation of the phones matched what the app had been programmed to look for, it would display a ghostly image of a dress.

One feature of the app, which pretty much requires a second person, is that it enables the customer to be filmed interacting with the invisible dress. The image "appears over the live camera feed, so users can either interact with the dress on its own or virtually try it on. The virtual fitting room really works best as a social experience, most shoppers opt to have a friend snap a photo of them trying on the virtual garment," said Bill Irwin, who managed the Debenhams' setup for Gold Rungo, the vendor the chain used for the trial.

If the customer has a friend with her, the customer can try and step into the dress so her friend can take a picture of the customer in that outfit.If the customer has a friend with her, the customer can try and step into the dress so her friend can take a picture of the customer in that outfit.

"Shoppers will be able to view 10 party dresses, only available at the location, virtually try them on, order them and get the garment delivered to an address of their choice," a Debenhams' statement said, adding that participants would also get 20 percent off discount coupons for anything at the chain's E-Commerce site.

Back in New York, eBay has deployed its own virtual store, but at least it has a bit more physicality to it. It looks like a series of department store window displays, with lots of QR codes. Products are on display. But there's no physical store anywhere nearby.

Department stores are often described as showrooms for Amazon. In this case, eBay is taking the phrase literally, using the windows—and just the windows—to create a showroom for online purchases. (Flash: A retailer figures out a way to use windows without crashing. But seriously ladies and germs.)

For a 20 percent discount and a very small selection of dresses, it's not clear that the incentive to travel to these locations would be that high. The intent of the Debenhams' trial, though, was that customers wouldn't have to go out of their way. The chain selected high-traffic locations and intended this trial only for consumers who would be at those locations anyway, perhaps because they work or live near them or because they are popular tourist spots.

There is nothing physical at all at the locations, in the sense of no projectors or monitors. Therefore, these virtual stores could be created on-the-fly virtually anywhere: In the middle of Times Square on New Year's Eve, at the White House after an inauguration, in the middle of a sports arena, etc. Want to get creative and customized? What about placing it in the front yard (you'll want satellite line-of-sight) of the customer? Want to get nasty? Have your ghostly products only available outside the complaint desk office door of your largest rival.

This idea is a gimmick now, but the idea of being able to place virtual products at any coordinate you can think up has huge possibilities. Also, the absence of the need for physical hardware at the site means it could be created within seconds to accommodate a very short-duration opportunity. Instant demos for customers, but demos that will only last 10 minutes? That gives people a reason to engage at a very specific moment. Maybe one out of every 10 of the images will have a virtual 80 percent coupon? Or a $200 giftcard? Suddenly, a 21st Century take on a treasure hunt starts to sound interesting again.