“So, what are you looking for?” the Lululemon staffer cheerfully asks. She handpicks a couple of yoga leggings that cost upwards of $100, but there’s a catch: There’s no way to try them on because the consultation is over Zoom, with the sales associate at home sharing screens from the brand’s website. The half-hour session with the Lululemon Athletica Inc. “digital educator” is a cross between hanging out with a friend and a virtual business meeting. The conversation veers to sports bras and ends with the purchase of high-rise tights in heathered graphite gray. The leggings show up two days later and fit.
Retailers had been toying with features such as video chats and livestreaming to make e-commerce more pleasant and personable even before the coronavirus forced store closures. But months into a pandemic that still has people wary of going to the mall, the online shopping experiment is pivoting from hype to a longer-term strategy. Covid‑19 has supercharged the threat e-commerce poses to brick-and-mortar chains by accelerating its adoption—U.S. online sales in the second quarter rose 45% from a year earlier, clocking three times recent growth rates. Now the industry is racing to respond.