The Evolution, Impact and Potential of Retail Space Virtual Tours
By Nathaniel Mallon
The goal of showing prospective tenants a space before they pay an in-person visit has played a role in the real estate industry for decades. While taking a series of photographs had been the go-to method of achieving this for quite some time–with the internet allowing those photos to be accessed around the world–technology has remained at the forefront as it pertains to innovating this process.
Until recently, the most advanced method of achieving this was to provide tenants with a video “walkthrough” of a space. Today, the virtual tour is rapidly becoming the new standard.
Born of Convenience, Spurred by Necessity
This new standard was largely considered to be more of a convenience than a necessity until recently. From a prospective tenant’s perspective, the ability to view a location before seeing it in person was a means of greatly cutting down on time spent setting up appointments, aligning schedules, traveling to and from locations, and potentially moving at the slower pace of a group tour.
But following the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, brokers needed to showcase their properties remotely, while tenants had to experience prospective spaces in a safe and healthy way. This combination of convenience and necessity was a significant contributor to what brought the virtual tour to fruition so quickly.
The accessibility that virtual tours present has been experienced across all real estate sectors. By using 360-degree cameras to document every inch of a space, modern technology can be used to stitch all of these images together to create a virtual recreation of entire buildings if needed.
These re-creations can be navigated at will through desktop computers and tablets, making it significantly easier to gauge the amount of available space without relying on dimensions or raw photographs. Furthermore, these tours are available 24/7 and do not require any additional software, meaning that they can reach an incredibly broad range of prospective tenants around the globe.
Unique Benefits for Retail
While the benefits of virtual tours are far reaching, the retail industry stands to gain particularly unique advantages. This is due in part to the specific needs of the retail sector itself. While the residential and office sectors place significant emphasis on creating spaces for individuals to occupy several hours at a time, retail spaces emphasize facilitating foot traffic, creating open spaces for vendors to showcase their products, ensuring inviting storefronts to passersby and other factors that are generally not applicable across other classes. Additionally, the retail industry faced particularly difficult challenges following the pandemic, due to the health risks associated with a large number of people passing through any given space per day.
Virtual tours address many of these issues. At the most basic level, still photographs and slideshows are generally useful for understanding the layout of a space and what it might look like from the perspective from which the photo was taken. While video walkthroughs help provide a better understanding of the size and navigability of space, this is essentially an “on rails” experience that doesn’t allow viewers to further investigate an area or section that might catch their eye. Additionally, videos could sometimes require plugins, apps or specific browsers, meaning they could be less accessible than a virtual tour.
Improving on Existing Methods
All of these points notwithstanding, the retail sector made do with photos and video walkthroughs until 2020. With in-person visits still being the truest way for prospective tenants to accurately gauge a space, these methods provided a way to at least gain a preliminary assessment of a space to decide whether it would be worth visiting.
However, the onset of the pandemic meant these in-person visits were often no longer possible. Even those able to open an in-person business during the following two years, it became increasingly difficult to determine whether a space would adhere to COVID regulations without visiting them in person.
Through virtual tours, retailers could more accurately assess the spatial dimensions of a space, imagining how it would look from the outside looking in and vice versa, without relying on someone else to digitally walk them through. Furthermore, the freedom to inspect and even measure certain aspects of a space, such as kitchens, HVAC locations, entrances and windows, made it simpler to address areas that might have required renovation without having to personally perform inspections.
These benefits proved useful for the post-pandemic era as well. For example, a virtual tour for retail owners who knew they would open a storefront in the coming six months, helped them make decisions well ahead of time. This was also useful to prospective retail owners who knew that they would be moving to a new location. The virtual tour all but eliminated the need for numerous trips to the new location until absolutely necessary, streamlining the leasing process and saving money and time for both tenants and brokers. Further benefits to brokers included the accompanying increases in sales, the ability to easily email their “tours” to others and not requiring travel to physically perform tours unless necessary.
The virtual tour is here to stay. It is the logical next step in how spaces are showcased, providing the benefits of both still photos and videos with an increased accessibility and freedom that today’s prospective tenants demand. For retail brokers, virtual tours are an invaluable asset in widening their audience and providing better service. From the tenant perspective, it is the next best method of both viewing and experiencing a property.
While the future may hold further touring innovations in the form of emerging tech such as the metaverse, today’s successful retail brokers and owners have embraced the virtual tour.
Nathaniel Mallon is managing partner with Verada Retail. Verada Retail connects retail business owners with commercial landlords through a one-stop shop that leverages the latest in technology.