Virtual Shelves - A Frontier of Innovation in Retail Technologies

The evolving retail landscape involves redefining the purpose of physical stores for more customer connections and creating seamless omni-channel experiences.


Brick and mortar retailers are under tremendous pressure from the e-commerce boom and ever-evolving customer expectations. Globally, online shopping is projected to continue its strong upward trend[1]. A lack of physical constraints has enabled e-commerce sites to innovate often and act quickly in terms of marketing and customer experience. Further, their lower cost of operations has translated into better pricing for customers. As a result, "offline" retailers are suffering from a drop in sales, lower footfalls and a dire need to reinvent themselves to stay relevant.

Retailers are responding with new concepts and digital innovations to transform their role from transactional outlets to experiential destinations. Interactive smart retail technologies are playing an increasing role in this journey, with a variety of tools for retailers to choose from and a broad range of benefits.

In this whitepaper:

  • Smart Retail: What Customers Want

  • How Virtual Shelves Work

  • Virtual Shelf Case Studies

  • 3 Ways that Virtual Shelves Benefit your Business

  • Retailers' Guide: Transitioning to Virtual Shelves

Innovate, or Risk Irrelevance

The physical retail store is here to stay, but in different avatars.

Smart Retail Solutions

First, is a reinvention of the purpose of the offline store. "Future retail is moving from transactional to relational. Brands will use the offline space to create more opportunities for people to connect with the products", says Emilie Colker[2], executive director at IDEO.

For example, brick & mortar retailer Ikea is introducing smaller stores to reach urban shoppers in a bid to compete against e-commerce sites. Ikea is also experimenting with different ways to enable customers to experience products, both in real-life via pop-up cooking classes and virtually via virtual reality apps in Ikea stores.

Second, is the development of a seamless customer experience across online and offline. Over 60% of customers in Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States shop across both physical and digital channels[3], and research suggests that omnichannel shoppers account for a larger percentage of sales[4].

A seamless experience can be as simple as ensuring product pricing is consistent across the retailer's stores, e-commerce site and mobile app. It can also be more complex, where access to online shopping features, like reviews, price comparison and personalized offers, are delivered in-store.

What Customers Want

Online shopping has influenced customer expectations and behaviors.

Augmented Reality

Customers consume personalized digital content across interactive touch screens (i.e. their smartphones) on a daily basis. Familiar with this technology, they have come to expect smooth user experiences across all facets of life. When it comes to retail experiences, customers expect access to up-to-date product catalogs, detailed product information with supporting rich visual content (like videos), product reviews, price comparison, personalized offers and coupons, and seamless one-click payments.

Customers are also hungry for contemporary technology-fueled experiences, such as virtual reality, nowadays rebranded as the "Metaverse". In a study on "The Future of Shopping" by McKinsey[4] polled customers in Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, and unearthed the following insights:

  • Virtual Shelves are in demand - respondents believe these interactive signage solutions will improve their in-store shopping experience (54% of German respondents felt this way).

  • Browsing products, exploring products "virtually" and receiving similar product recommendations were the most popular activities (over half of German respondents felt this way).

  • In-store virtual reality and augmented reality experiences drew in predominantly online shoppers, giving them a reason to visit brick & mortar stores.

How Virtual Shelves Work

Virtual shelves are interactive touchscreens that are installed within a certain space, be it inside the store at point of sale, as the shop window, or in a pop-up location. These touchscreens can display products from the retailer's catalog, which customers can interact with as per their will.

How to interactive virtual shelves

Customers can touch the display to see more information about the product, add it to their shopping cart, and complete the transaction digitally or through their smartphone - for instance by scanning a QR code.

Virtual shelves can also play rich media content and can be customized to offer specific services to customers, such as personal assistance. These interactive solutions can also be equipped with product recognition technologies, enabling customers to display relevant additional information when a product is scanned.

A content management system and an array of touchscreen apps and features allow retailers to update content in real-time and ensure the offline store is in 'sync' with their online promotions. All touch interactions can be tracked and analysed to gather intelligence around customers. Virtual shelves can be set up as large multitouch screens, kiosk terminals, tables or even super-sized video walls of different sizes.

Virtual shelves, real results

Interactive technologies point to an exciting future for retail. Several brands have already embraced these technologies and seen positive impact, encouraging others to explore the use of interactive digital signage to find their own sweet spots.

Interactive Digital Signage
  • McDonald's

    has embraced interactive touchscreens at its point of sale, to allow customers to skip the queue for the cashier and place their orders quickly and seamlessly. According to one case study, the results were faster service time per order and a 30% increase in the average order size[5].

  • Polaris

    leveraged virtual shelves within its stores to provide customers with accurate detailed information about its range of specialised vehicles, leading to a 26% increase in vehicle sales and a 44% increase in accessory sales[6].

  • Zwilling

    created an award-winning retail experience, with the use of a bespoke solution from eyefactive, by enabling customers to seek personalised product recommendations from a catalogue of thousands of different items with the use of interactive touch screens and a virtual assistant.[7]

Interactive touchscreens act as a blank digital canvas for retailers to leverage as per their specific needs, be it inventory management, advertising at point of sale, provision of additional information or customer reviews about products and so on. With insight into the specific on-site challenges and some creativity, a diverse range of solutions can be delivered at the POS with interactive virtual shelf solutions

3 Ways that Virtual Shelves Benefit your Business.

Optimise costs, improve customer experience and re-invent the retail experience. The advantages of virtual shelves can be categorised into three key benefits.

Virtual Shelves help Optimise Costs

  • Free up physical space in-store

    Interactive digital signage empowers retailers to maximise their physical space. Virtual shelves can display the retailer's entire catalog of products, freeing up space that would be otherwise occupied and allowing retailers to put it to different use.

  • Downsize retail space and save on rent costs

    Virtual shelves give retailers the option to downsize their operations and therefore save on rent and maintenance costs.

  • Avoid cost of printing marketing collaterals

    Since content and videos can be displayed digitally, there is an opportunity to reduce or avoid printing marketing collaterals.

  • Set up store-in-store locations with higher footfall and preferred audiences

    With virtual shelves, stores no longer need to occupy a large amount of space. As a result, retailers have the freedom to explore new locations, which might typically be out of reach or budget.

Virtual Shelves help Improve the Customer Experience

  • Faster fulfilment, without having to search for staff

    Customers are in control of their experience with virtual shelves, and can access the information they require seamlessly, without queuing up or seeking help.

  • Access to the entire product catalogue

    Customers can see all available products virtually, even if they are not currently in stock at the store. Further, they can verify the product is available in the size they require.

  • Access to information in real time

    Customers can access additional information about the products they are interested in such as reviews and price comparison, and be assured that they are accessing the latest, up-to-date data.

  • Convenient browsing with the help of a virtual assistant

    Customers can quickly scan the catalog for products they are interested in, using search and filter functions, without having to hunt the physical products one by one in the store.

Virtual Shelves help Reinvent the Retail Experience

  • Extend store timings and 'open hours'

    Interactive shop windows allow customers to engage with a brand and the respective products before even entering the shop, and render store timings irrelevant.

  • Accept mobile payments

    The entire customer journey can take place on interactive self-order solutions providing virtual shelves - from product discovery to virtual assistants and checkout features such as mobile payments.

  • Scan products for more information

    By means of object recognition, customers can "scan" single products to access more content or to initiate a delightful interactive experience.

  • Track touchscreen interactions

    Every touchscreen interaction can be tracked and measured, providing retailers with rich customer insights and intelligence. From understanding what customers are interested in, to charting their actual customer journey and using new technologies to sense their age, sex aned even emotions - interactive digital signage captures data that was previously inaccessible within stores.

3 Steps Retailers Can Take To Implement Virtual Shelves

  • Assessment

    Store owners should assess their readiness to transition to virtual shelves. This should include an evaluation of current technology, customer service needs, staff capabilities, and the potential implications of making the switch.

  • Planning

    Retailers should plan the transition, including mapping out the customer journey and developing strategies to ensure a smooth transition. This could involve discussions between departments, such as IT and marketing, to identify potential challenges and opportunities.

  • Implementation

    Retailers should clarify that they have the necessary resources in place to ensure a successful transition to virtual shelves, such as staff training and a plan to phase out existing technologies. Additionally, businesses should look for technology partners and suppliers who can help them with the transition.


Smart retail technologies such as virtual shelves are transforming the point of sale and enabling retailers to bridge the digital gap and go even further. Retailers can leverage these technologies to meet customers' demands for up-to-date content, personalised communications and seamless omni-channel shopping, and to delight customers with unique engaging experiences. Virtual shelves and interactive digital technologies can play key roles in freeing up retail space and in facilitating online shopping features in physical stores.

Matthias Woggon (Author)

About the Author

Matthias Woggon is CEO & Co-founder of eyefactive GmbH. A pioneer in interactive signage, eyefactive combines interactive touchscreen systems, software and technologies like object recognition to offer innovative solutions for businesses. Furthermore, clients and partners can create ready to use apps with individual content and designs in the world's first ever app store for professional large-scale touchscreens.

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