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Has the Day Arrived for Real-Time “See-Commerce” ?

In the horse race of e-commerce, the blinders are coming off thanks to new digital platforms that combine live video, social media, and financial transactions. E-commerce transactions via webcam, also known as “see-commerce,” allow online companies to conduct business face-to-face via a live video feed.

This human interaction could eliminate some of the geographic disadvantages of brick-and-mortar stores, and it’s already bringing online companies together with customers. Before you grab the reins on this new way to do business, you might be interested in learning how others are trying to use these new platforms to pull away from the pack.

The Starting Gate of See-commerce

Google Helpouts

Google Helpouts is one of the first see-commerce platforms for experts who wish to provide services. Helpouts, which can cost a fee or be free, combines Google+ Hangouts with Google Wallet transactions. Businesses can provide real-time customer service via webcam, and they receive payment for that service directly through a video chat room. Customers can learn the guitar, get resume counseling, improve their Caribbean cooking skills, or take any of the hundreds of other classes available.

Helpouts allows e-commerce sites and online businesses to operate more like brick-and-mortar businesses, simulating a physical storefront via live video. For instance, a piano teacher is no longer restricted to soliciting students from only their city. With Helpouts, a teacher in the U.S. could assist a piano student in England, teach them to play via a live video feed, and then receive payment for that transaction in the same virtual space.

Unlike Hangouts on Air, Helpouts does not stream live, but the conversation can be recorded if both parties agree. In the Helpout below, I taught a blogger in Germany how to host a Hangout on Air.


My Helpout was a free offering. For paid sessions, Google charges a flat 20 percent transaction fee on all non-health-related Helpouts. (After January 2014, health Helpouts will come with the same transaction fee.)

Helpouts aren’t the only way for online businesses to get paid via live video. Ron Watson of Pawsitive Vybe took his dog training business to a global audience using live video with a separate payment component. Can a video chat room be private enough for sensitive customer conversations? Thomas Finley of LawyerCams thinks so. He uses video chat for free and paid legal consultations with clients around the globe.

Other industries are experimenting with live video for customer service. Toyota recently launched “Collaborator,” its new service that allows a customer to design a vehicle to their specifications and chat face-to-face with a Toyota representative. Car enthusiasts can even take the vehicle for a virtual test drive.

Tom’s Shoes allows customers to purchase custom designed shoes and then watch them being made live via webcam. Tom’s calls it the “Human Powered Product Customer.”

Human Powered Product Customer

Oh! The Humanity (of E-commerce)

Research shows eye contact reduces online hostilities, so it makes sense that online entities are beginning to pay attention to the value of seeing someone’s face. The human factor is at the forefront of these new ways of interacting with customers, and developers are keen to integrate a more human experience by introducing very human-centric properties, including voice, touch, and gesture.

MindMeld can analyze a conversation of up to eight people and decipher relevant and contextual information from the interactions of the speakers. It uses the information to perform anticipatory web searches. Computers may not be able to read our minds yet, but expect developers to stay quite busy on that task for some time.

Amazon is another big brand betting on eye contact, but there’s still work to do. The “Mayday” button on newer Kindle tablets enables real-time video chat with a customer service agent. Financial transactions are not yet part of the Mayday feature, and the eye contact is one-sided, as the customer service agent doesn’t have the ability to see the customer’s face.

The fashion industry also is trying on see-commerce. Designer Rebecca Minkoff recently sold some of her clothing via a live video feed called “Shop the Hangout.” Customers could watch the models on the runway, and then purchase clothing directly from the Google+ Hangout.

Charities are getting hip to the trend, too. Recently, “Giving Tuesday” hosted a Hangoutathon where people could donate to charities inside the same screen where they watched the live broadcast on Google+.

giving teusday

Wearing See-commerce

Wearable computers like Google Glass, Apple’s iWatch or Samsung’s Galaxy watch combined with live video also could allow brick-and-mortar businesses to expand their geographic customer base.

Take Google Glass, for instance, which allows users to place and receive video calls or group video calls. Wearables could allow in-store service reps to easily service online customers because the communication devices are hands free.

Imagine a shoe salesman wearing Google Glass. While he’s going to the back room to get a size 6 stiletto for an in-store customer, he could take a video call from an online customer inquiring about whether the Jimmy Choo pumps are more burgundy or maroon. Since the clerk is wearing the communication device on his face and is mobile, he has his hands free to hold up the shoes to his Google Glass and show the online customer via live video the correct color.

These kinds of hybrid customer service interactions where the agent is able to alternate between servicing an in-store person and an online customer from a showroom floor could further push the boundaries of a traditional land-based business.

Google Glass is not currently supported as a device for Helpouts, but that didn’t stop Al Navas, a Missouri Glass Explorer, and Jeff Bond, a California Glass Explorer, as they demonstrated what a Helpout via Google Glass might look like if a homeowner needed someone to repair their deck.

New technology such as Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC) could make more see-commerce platforms possible. WebRTC enables in-browser based video calling and video chat so customers wouldn’t have to download a plugin to connect to a video call. Combine WebRTC with more communities getting powerful bandwidth to handle video calls, and you have an environment ripe to nurture future face-to-face e-commerce.

Businesses need to pay attention to these emerging platforms. Not being familiar with how they operate in coming years could be the equivalent of not being listed in a new kind of video yellow pages. All it takes to put a living, breathing human on your website is a webcam, a line of code to embed a button on your website, and the guts to interact with your customers on a deeper level beyond voice and text.

Are you a business owner still covering your eyes when it comes to e-commerce? It’s not too late to learn how to dial the video phone. Advances in social video calling like Helpouts will undoubtedly make it easier for business personnel to peek through their fingers and peer into the eyes of their customers for the very first time. Whether see-commerce lands your company in the winner’s circle depends on your horse. Or perhaps, as Henry Ford noted, e-commerce is now a different animal altogether.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” – Henry Ford

About the Author: Sarah Hill is a brand journalist and human media strategist for Veterans United Home Loans. She blogs about veterans, human media, and hero tours that are taking terminally ill veterans to see their memorials via live, interactive video. Follow her here:

  1. okay, I agree that with see-commerce businesses can expand their customer base, more eye contact.
    But I think it will take a long time before everybody incorporates this new see-commerce feature.

    • Agreed. It will be a while before “everybody” is using see-commerce. However, more brands are migrating to live video side by side with products. For instance, Best Buy held a shopping Hangout on Christmas Eve to try to bump last minute sales. I don’t see all businesses disconnecting their phones anytime soon but in 2014 you will see more brands …big and small dipping their collective toes in the water. It would be interesting to see those brands’ data on whether eye contact reduced abandon rates on their e-commerce sites.

  2. Brandon Pindulic Dec 24, 2013 at 1:55 pm is also another interesting startup in this space.

    They focus more on niche bloggers with a specific skill-set to offer expert help/advice.

    Interesting space altogether. It seems a lot more of these types of startups will sprout up and for good reason.

  3. Big brands can face many problems with providing an engaging expirence to a big group of people whereas the one-on-one live video sessions can unfold the true impact on bottom line sales. It is now the era for SMB’s etailers to benefit on see-commerce leveraging 1 or 2 way live video interactions with their visitors and customers.

  4. Google helpouts was not one of the first of these platforms as the article faslely mentions. Other platforms have been emerging in this space for quite sometime including LiveNinja, which in my opinion offers a more engaging user experience.

    • Your point is well taken John but to my knowledge… Live Ninja isn’t embedded inside a social network. That’s a key difference. Being embedded on a social platform is a key component as it allows the e-commerce site to crowd source for customers within Google+. We might see live video commerce really take off if Google were to ever bump up Helpouts in its search algorithm. So if you searched for “Company X”… its Helpout would show up in search along with its phone number and website. The social + search + live video combination is what’s intriguing. Thanks for your comments. I will enjoy checking out what LiveNinja has to offer.

      • I suppose but i think for that to be an advantage people need to actually use google + on a regular basis outside of just techies.

        I think the real value for these platforms is about embedding the technology into other sites, not the network itself. I do like the fact that on LiveNinja i can incorporate my LinkedIn profile and other social networks into my resume. I assume thats very helpful for small businesses with preexisting reputations elsewhere online. I doubt google will play nice with other networks the way an independent platform would.

  5. Just to further expand on the above comment, (after doing some additional research on the space) it seems there have been platforms doing this for years (LiveExpert, keen, etc) but now seems to be a tipping point for video which I suppose allows for different types of interactions that were not possible before with audio/phone only platforms.

  6. I think it will take a long time before everybody incorporates this new see-commerce feature.

  7. ‘See-commerce’! this is the first time I’ve hear about that, I’m a marketting newbie so don’t judge. Thanks for sharing that, I’ll definitely be taking advantage of it.

  8. Bryant Jaquez Jan 13, 2014 at 9:54 pm

    Sarah, this is truly one of the more innovative posts I’ve read in a long time. My mind is racing with ideas.

  9. Great article. Google & Ambarella (maker of gopro and Dropcam video chips) introduced their wearable live streaming camera reference design at CES 2014 for Helpouts. Could be the killer app that brings “see commerce” more mainstream. The camera records in HD while also sending a live stream to Google’s servers. Seems like more companies are jumping on the Helpouts bandwagon I.e. sephora and Home Depot (repair experts and paint consultants).

  10. Great article full of innovative ideas! I will definitely try some of them. So far the most “interactive” tools that I use are social media an live chat. They boosted the sales of my store, specially the live chat, that not only is good in terms of customer support but I recently discovered that my provider, Visitlead, forward the important data automatically to Kissmetric


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