VANCOUVER -- The COVID-19 pandemic may be slowing down retail sales, but it’s accelerating a shift in how retailers and shoppers connect online.

“What we’ve seen in the last 30 to 60 days is about five years of digital transformation,” said James Basnett, head of retail strategy at Shape Immersive, a Vancouver technology company that specializes in virtual and augmented reality.

“Whether it’s shoes or clothes or even household appliances, you can now see them in your environments or on your body using your mobile phone,” Basnett explained.

Many consumers are now trying online shopping for the first time, whether it’s to avoid possible COVID-19 exposure, or to avoid the new reality of in-person shopping altogether, where stores have lineups outside with masked security guards at the door to ensure physical distancing can be maintained inside.

“Retail has had to adapt almost every week to new prescriptions coming out of health authorities,” said David Ian Gray of DIG360, a national retail advisor based in Vancouver.

“The amount of innovation that’s been happening in a couple of months is pretty outstanding,” said Gray, pointing to retailers increasingly using technology to help online customers visualize the products they have their eyes on.

However, Gray predicts the retail landscape that will emerge post-COVID will be a hybrid of online and physical stores, because technology hasn’t quite gotten to the point where consumers can experience texture in a virtual environment: “They need to be able to have people touch, feel, smell, and interact with their products.”