By Ian Betteridge
The latest wave of change to hit retail is virtual reality.
Outside the industry, there’s a common perception that retail is a relatively slow-paced business. Other than layouts and stock, the theory goes, retail has been the same for decades.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, like all sectors, retail has been subject to an increasingly quick pace of change, with waves of new and exciting developments throughout its history. From the invention of the mail-order catalogue in the 1800s through department stores and TV shopping channels to the online retailing of today, how we sell goods to customers is constantly changing – and, if anything, the pace is increasing.
The latest new technology to hit retail is virtual reality (VR). You would expect that the biggest impact of VR would be on online shopping but, as we’ll see, it’s also changing the in-store experience – in fact, some of the most creative applications of VR have mixed the real world with the virtual.
VR and online retail
The potential for using virtual reality in online retailing is obvious: it allows retailers to create much more immersive and engaging experiences that mimic those of physical retail stores, as well as adding some enhancement not possible in the real world.
Take for example Imperial Avenue’s work to recreate Karen Millen’s flagship store in VR. The virtual shop Imperial Avenue created lets customers browse the store no matter where they are, and buy items they find through VR. The “stores” themselves are simple 360-degree panoramas, making them accessible on most platforms. Stores can also include hotspots that let users access more information about individual products, as well as other interactive features.
Chinese shopping giant Alibaba.com took things a step further with its Buy+ shopping platform. Buy+ allows customers to browse not only a department store, but a recreated part of New York City around it – getting a cab from Times Square to a version of Macy’s.
And virtual reality doesn’t have to copy the real world. eBay Australia and department store Myer created a virtual-reality department store that, rather than mimic a regular store, had “no walls, ceilings or escalators”. Customers could fly through an infinite space of products, and the project also used eBay’s expertise in customising experiences for individual customers to ensure that no two shops were identical.
If virtual reality is a natural fit for online retailing, what about in-store? Surely there’s nothing VR can add to the physical experience of shopping?
In fact, VR can be used to make the in-store experience much more compelling and interesting for the customer, and add real, tangible benefits for the retailer. As the design of retail spaces becomes much more intelligent, focusing on maximising footfall in the right places at the right times, VR can have a measurable impact on key metrics.
Because it’s still a relatively novel technology, having a VR installation in-store can drive footfall by creating a buzz around a particular part of the shop. In turn, this can lead to increased dwell times – and if the plan for the VR area is well thought out, this can mean additional sales for key items and more browsing of important product categories.
Marks & Spencer, in collaboration with its agency Mindshare, created a pop-up virtual-reality showroom that it took around key homeware locations in Leeds, London and elsewhere. This pop-up allowed consumers to drag and drop items from its high-end LOFT homeware range to create what the company described as “their ideal living space”.
Similarly, BT Sport created an in-store experience designed to promote its content offering and increase footfall and dwell time in EE’s biggest London retail stores. The proposition was simple: the company captured a Premier League match between Chelsea and Arsenal live in VR so that fans could “enjoy experiencing all the highs and lows of a football match via virtual reality”, according to Jamie Hindhaugh, COO of BT Sport. Because the match was live, it attracted fans of both teams to the store.
What could VR do for your store?
Virtual reality is a technology that bridges the gap between online and real worlds, which is why it works so well for both online and traditional retailers. The emotional power of VR is such that it can deepen engagement online, but also provide an attraction in-store that delivers increased footfall and engagement.
That’s why it’s a good time to think about how you can use VR in your stores, online and off. The emotional power of VR means customers can turn what might be a dull shopping experience into something much more fun. Your employees will get more good days at work as they see either increased sales online or more footfall through the physical store. Online, VR turns pages into stores; in a physical retailer, it can turn browsers into engaged, happy customers who come back not just for a bargain, but also for the experience your store offers.