Why you should care

Because seeing is believing, and this company is banking on that believing — to help you with buying.

We can buy just about anything online, from books and clothes to milk and eggs. But sometimes you just want to see, touch and feel a product you’re about to spend your hard-earned cash on. That’s why an emerging San Francisco startup wants to more officially marry the brick-and-mortar retail world with e-commerce. Gorilly is a service that helps consumers experience products before buying them. Sounds pretty simple, right? Does it mean we’re headed back to the pre-Amazon, pre-dot-com boom of shopping in actual stores? Not exactly.

E-commerce retailers often don’t have the physical space to strut their stuff. But consumers, one company believes, still want a tangible shopping experience for certain products (bags, clothes, costly electronics — not AAA batteries or the same deodorant you’ve always used). Gorilly is banking on the concept of “showrooming,” or the process of checking out a product in a physical space and then going online to make the purchase. (Admittedly, many of us already do this: We stop by our local bookstore, check out the new releases and then go home and place an order for a cheaper version on Amazon.com.)

It allows the shopper to examine and get a feel for the item — it’s showrooming without a showroom.

Gorilly is taking advantage of the sharing economy by dispatching regular folk who already own a particular product to talk to shoppers interested in evaluating that product in person. Right now, during the company’s beta test, the site features select products from three brands — DODOcase, Topo Designs and The BoomCase — that aren’t selling those products in nationwide retail stores.

Dodocase Classic 20

DODOcase Classic iPad case

Source Karlis Dambrans/Flickr

A shopper who comes to the Gorilly site can peruse its selection and then contact a “Product Gorilly” (PG), a loyal customer (initially chosen by the brand) who already owns the item. Based on location, the shopper connects to a local PG and arranges a time to meet. The idea is for the PG to give honest feedback about the item based on personal experience and allow the shopper to examine and get a feel for the item — it’s showrooming without a showroom. Each interaction can be anywhere from five minutes (a quick demo) to 20 minutes (a longer conversation about use). After the meeting, a promotion code is generated so if the shopper decides to buy the item directly from the manufacturer’s website, they get a promotion on the purchase. In turn, the PG gets a little kickback — an average commission of 10 percent of the sale amount — and so does Gorilly.

It remains unclear just how objective the PGs’ feedback will be if they’ve been handpicked by the brands for the beta test and a successful sale translates to cash for them. But anyone who owns a product from one of the participating brands can now apply to be a PG — much like Uber drivers or Airbnb hosts.

PG Nikki Anderson, a San Francisco-based Web developer who’s followed the company since its early days, says her role has been more about sharing her experiences about the items she owns than the cash (she hasn’t made any yet). So far, Anderson has had two requests from shoppers but no sales. She explained how showing the backpack she uses daily — to tote her gym clothes and other personal items — helps potential customers visualize how the backpack is used in a real-world scenario.

The in-person experience and conversation is like taking a Yelp or Amazon review to the next level.

Being a PG taps into something innate: People like to be brand ambassadors. But this enthusiasm could also be a danger, and one bad PG could ruin the fun for everyone. “The trick is going to be to make sure you have the right people representing your products,” says Arun Sundararajan, professor of information, operations and management sciences at NYU Stern. “With social media, companies have already faced the challenge of losing control over the message.”

One of the startup’s co-founders suggests that the in-person experience and conversation is like taking a Yelp or Amazon review to the next level. It could be a win for companies too, since PGs act like brand ambassadors. I mean, ask any Mac fan about his or her Apple trifecta (iPhone + iPad + MacBook) and you’ll likely be in for a passionate monologue.

Gorilly kicked off this new model in September, and for now, there are only five to 10 PGs. After beta testing in San Francisco is complete, the company has plans to expand to more cities. Co-founders Ted Horan and Hollis Kelley — best friends since preschool — say they’re aiming to have 15 brands on the site later this fall.

In the 1990s and 2000s, we saw traditional retailers desperate to build up their online presences. Now the opposite is starting to happen: Digital-native retailers are seeing a need for some kind of physical presence. Horan points to Warby Parker and Bonobos, both of which opened physical locations to showcase their products and are straddling the line between e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retail. And though leading e-commerce giant Amazon has stayed mum, the Seattle-based company reportedly is expected to open a physical store in New York.

Gorilly: another good shopping idea — in theory, at least. As all know, the sharing economy is only as strong as those who want to share.

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