Apple unveiled the new iPad Pro and MacBook Air two weeks ago, but most fans still can’t try them out in stores. Since March 13, the Californian giant has shuttered all of its retail outlets except in Greater China, along with Samsung and Microsoft, which also closed their US stores.

Trying to find a good laptop to buy now that everyone in the family is staying home? Or wondering how Apple’s updated keyboard feels? All of sudden, it’s no longer an option to go on a shopping trip to see and touch things for yourself. And even in places where shops remain open, it’s easy to see why some people might be reluctant to handle display items.

Online shopping existed for years before the coronavirus pandemic, yet telecom stores and tech showrooms — the kind of airy, minimalist space where tech brands display neatly-lined smartphones and other gadgets — have remained a core part of brands’ sales pitch. In 2018, about two-thirds of Americans still purchased their latest phone from a brick-and-mortar shop, according to a survey conducted by Deloitte.

Despite our increasing addiction to the likes of Amazon and eBay, lines continue to snake outside Apple Stores every iPhone launch day. And Xiaomi store openings still attract devoted fans. Huawei is expanding its physical footprint overseas, opening its first flagship store in France last month after setting up shops in Barcelona, Madrid and Milan.

Price and the types of products might determine how comfortable people are about clicking the buy button online. Buying a book or a US$60 dress you’ve never seen is one thing; investing hundreds of dollars on a smartphone without trying it in person before is another. After all, some people now expect to keep their phones for three years.

But the pandemic has disrupted life as we knew it. With shops and factories shut down in parts of Asia, it’s estimated that the world bought 14% to 38% fewer smartphones in February compared with last year, according to industry analysts.

In China, where the contagion first exploded, shoppers are being introduced to new ways of shopping that attempt to replicate parts of the in-store experience.

People wearing face masks walk past a closed Apple shop at the empty Wangfujing shopping district in Beijing on February 9. Stores have since reopened. (Picture: Roman Pilipey/EPA-EFE)

Vivo, which sells more smartphones in China than anyone except Huawei, says customers can book a video chat with a salesperson to learn more about a product before placing an order. Xiaomi partnered with a tech founder-turned-influencer to promote its latest phone in a live stream on the Chinese version of TikTok. The audience could purchase by clicking a pop-up link on the screen. Alibaba says it’s helping inspect second-hand phones from third-party sellers so people don’t have to shop in person at Huaqiangbei, China’s mecca for cheap electronics.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)

In neighboring South Korea, Samsung’s customers can have a phone delivered to their door and test it for 24 hours before a worker comes to pick it up.

Some of these are wise first steps, said Chris Schreiner, director at research firm Strategy Analytics, but there’s room to translate more of the feel-it-yourself experience in homes.

“Setting up virtual showrooms where consumers can get a more interactive experience with a device — see how exactly differentiating features and functions work, and when applicable, interact with them — would help with making that emotional connection,” he said.

Apple already uses augmented reality to let customers see how the iPhone 11 Pro would look in their surroundings. You can spin the virtual phone around, but that’s about it for now. You can’t actually press buttons on the phone or play with the screen yet.

But there might be potential. With Covid-19 forcing people to stay home, some virtual reality companies say they’re already receiving more requests to help host virtual meetings. HTC, the Taiwanese gadget maker, let participants join a product conference remotely through VR goggles.

A salesperson wearing protective gloves holds a Huawei Mate Xs foldable phone in front of customers wearing masks at a store in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing on March 10. (Picture: Wang Gang/SIPA Asia)

Still, some people are more likely to want to check out expensive gadgets in person before shelling out money, especially the older generations. A survey last year by Uswitch, a British price comparison site, showed only 36% of respondents older than 55 said they would use a smartphone or tablet to shop online.

Video chat or live streaming might work better in China, where purchase decisions are largely driven by on-paper specs and features, Schreiner told us. Western consumers, on the other hand, like to feel the shape and weight of a device in the hand.

“It is as much an e
motional experience as it is practical,” he said.

Brands might be more willing to absorb the cost of sending in a top-end device for potential customers to test-drive at home, according to Kevin Nolan, vice president of user experience at Strategy Analytics.

“But they would need to reassure people that [the phones] which were returned were deep cleaned — that will be important even after this crisis is over,” he said.

For now, though, it seems like some people can’t quite give up the in-store experience. With infections appearing to be under control in China, many businesses have reopened. A tech blogger on Weibo shared a recent photo of people lining up outside an Apple Store in the southern city of Guangzhou.

Another person wrote about a day out with her partner: “Went straight to the Apple Store and waited in a long line just to touch his beloved iPad.”

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