Adam Levene

Founded in 2015 by Adam Levene, the Hero platform allows shoppers to go “inside the store” online to “interact with real experts at their favorite brands through video shopping, messaging and real-time chat,” the company said.

The aim is to create a more human connection between online merchants and brands, and their customers. Here, Levene discusses how the platform works and how humanizing the online shopping experience is relevant — especially since the outbreak of COVID-19.

WWD: What was the impetus behind founding Hero? And how does the virtual shopping platform work?

Adam Levene: Shoppers don’t have the same confidence to buy online as they do when browsing in-store — we launched Hero in early 2017 to solve this, believing that human interaction is what’s missing from e-commerce.

Grapple, my last business, was the largest app-commerce company in Europe, launching digital platforms for Adidas, P&G and Fiat, among others. We saw firsthand the explosion of mobile commerce but recognized that it was too impersonal. It didn’t reflect shopping in-store where we could see products up close, or ask an associate for expert help. We set out to bring that “IRL” experience, online.

The Hero platform connects online shoppers to an expert, often in a real store nearby, through video text, and chat. Teams can also see what shoppers are browsing online in real-time, providing an opportunity to answer questions and share customized recommendations — with Hero making sure the associate gets the credit for the sale. It’s as easy to use as having a FaceTime or WhatsApp conversation with a friend.

Prior to 2020, we had pioneered virtual shopping. But the last year accelerated this transition. Our business grew 260 percent. Hundreds of global brands including Levi’s, Rag & Bone and Credo Beauty have now turned to Hero to merge their online experience with brick-and-mortar seamlessly.

WWD: What are shoppers looking for in a virtual shopping experience? What are the expectations?

A.L.: Amazon has made it possible to have nearly any product at your door in 48 hours — and they’re winning in terms of price, selection and speed of delivery. So where does this leave every other brand and retailer? As convenient as online shopping is, consumers still crave the personal nature of the in-store experience.

We found that customers routinely spend up to 70 percent more online when able to have a personalized visual shopping experience. And they are 21-times more likely to purchase after interacting with an in-store associate.

Through Hero, associates have been able to give customers up close and personal demos of products — from how jeans fit, to how to apply blush and highlighter, to codesigning their new living room. The brands that can integrate one-to-one and one-to-many human interactions into their e-commerce experience will be the winners in online retail. Human connection facilitated by associates online will be what consumers are looking for from retailers who are not Amazon or eBay, but these interactions also have to be convenient and familiar.

Chatting with an associate while shopping online needs to be as easy as messaging or FaceTiming into your favorite store.

WWD: How would you describe your target consumer? And what brands are on the platform?

A.L.: We work with brands that are looking to level-up their omnichannel experience and bring human connection to their online stores. Millions of shoppers in over 200 countries have virtually shopped with Hero on some of their favorite online stores including Rag & Bone, Levi’s, and Herman Miller and fast growth independents like Credo Beauty, Heyday, Incu and Saturdays NYC.

WWD: How did the pandemic change your business model? How was the platform impacted?

A.L.: While online sales continued to soar in 2020, it became increasingly important for brands competing with e-commerce giants like Amazon to differentiate themselves. The pandemic and temporary store closures had brick-and-mortar retail stores racing to preserve their “in-store” experiences online and e-commerce brands searching for creative ways to make their online stores personal and authentic. We saw a 950 percent increase in virtual shopping sessions across all Hero customers, and the brands using Hero more than quadruped between March 2020 and December 2020.

Virtual shopping proved to be critical: 85 percent of Hero customers were able to keep their retail associates employed amid temporary COVID-19 store closures, and Hero interactions accounted for up to 15 percent of our customers’ revenue in 2020. Some of our brand partners turned their retail spaces into “dark stores,” some had store associates demoing products from home, and some launched entirely new experimental spaces just for their virtual shopping interactions. In response, we also launched a new one-to-many video feature, now in beta. The feature, complementing live chat and video calls, allows brands to deliver a carousel of short, shoppable videos pre-recorded by associates in-store.

WWD: Do you expect the high demand for virtual shopping to continue this year? Why?

A.L.: Absolutely. e-commerce overall is expected to account for more than 58 percent of total retail sales by 2022. Even as stores open back up, the ability for store associates to build and maintain close relationships with customers across digital channels will remain critical. The store associate has never been more important, but they must have the tools to sell online, not just in a physical store. Associates humanize the shopping experience in ways that chatbots never could. As stores — temporarily or permanently — shift more online, retailers must retain the human edge as their competitive edge.