You normally can’t stand on a dining room table when shopping for furniture. But the new Wayfair store does things a bit differently.
Shoppers can don virtual reality headsets to see how furniture would fit into a space, using Wayfair’s Room Planner tool. They can virtually “climb” onto a dining room table to get a 360-degree view of a digitally rendered room, then swap out chairs, chandeliers, and art on the virtual walls.
That’s just one example of how the Boston-based e-commerce giant has used its digital DNA to create its first brick-and-mortar store. It opens Wednesday in the Natick Mall.
Product information, including prices and customer ratings, is displayed on screens that update in real time to reflect online price changes. Staffers carry iPads with an augmented reality tool that makes furniture appear in a 3-D setting, or they can snap a picture of an item in the store and find dozens like it online.
At 3,700 square feet, the Natick outlet has a fraction of the approximately 14 million items available on Wayfair’s website. But Wayfair has used the space as a showroom for some of its best-selling items, like the plush Josephine Chesterfield sofas, chic Donham lounge chairs, and functional Clennell counter-height kitchen tables.
The store is laid out as a set of vignettes — think rec room or cozy bedroom — each surrounded by a swath of accessories that match the decor.
It’s a tactile in all the ways shopping online isn’t. But company officials said they’ve tried to bring the online experience to life in the store.
“It’s an opportunity to bridge online with an actual retail experience,” spokeswoman Susan Frechette said, with a goal of making online and in-person shopping as interchangeable as possible.
Retailers love to use the term “omnichannel” to describe this concept: the idea that a shopper will start searching online, visit a store to see a product, then complete a purchase while back on their couch. It’s the reason so many e-commerce sites have ventured into physical storefronts, which also act as billboards for the brands. Wayfair aims to do a mix of both with its store. There are big-ticket items, such as couches and coffee tables, with fabric swatches you can touch. But there are also tchotkes and giftable pieces that can be bought on a whim, and which might not be the first thing someone would seek out online.
“It’s really being able to tie together your online and offline behavior,” said Meaghan Werle, a retail analyst at Kantar, a research firm.
“Maybe there’s something offline that you wouldn’t purchase online,” like pet food, she said. If Wayfair can use the store as a way to get to know more about consumers’s shopping habits, “then they can feed you more ads.”
So there’s a chance that if you buy one of the gold-painted Feline Good cat mugs in the Natick store, you might see some advertisements for cat condos the next time you visit the website.
That said, for all of its tech savvy, Wayfair seems to be behind the curve on a few retail digital basics. For example, other retailers have been using bar-code scanning to allow shoppers to quickly look up information on a product or to find similar objects that are available on the website. Wayfair staffers expect that technology to be available soon.
And the physical storefront won’t accept returns or offer pickups for online purchases — a key functionality that other retailers have been using to drive repeat sales.
That said, the shopping experience does feel like a Wayfair ad come to life: colorful and vibrant, with a dozen staffers on hand to offer interior design services. Shoppers can begin building 3-D room-planning projects online and finish them in the store, said Blythe Freedline, the store’s manager. Or staff can help them start filling a cart in-store, and they can finish their shopping at home, she said.
“It’s a big project and a big commitment,” Freedline said. “This is a place where you live and you want it to be perfect, and sometimes you have to take that time to think about it.”