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Virtual Reality: How It’s Reshaping the Face of Retail

by Joe Reger

When examining e-commerce trends for 2018, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) top just about every single list — so much so that experts are beginning to call this “the year of VR.” Just a few months in, we can already tell that retailers are hopping on the VR bandwagon. In February, Walmart announced that it bought the virtual reality startup Spatialand to “develop and explore new products and uses of VR through immersive retail environments.” 

But in reality — real reality that is, not the virtual one — retail’s sudden interest in VR technology is actually a fusion of several retail trends at once. Not only will companies prioritize VR shopping to create useful and unique customer experiences, but they’ll also leverage it to encourage retail innovation at large. With these exciting new experiences, we’ll see some interesting shifts in how people buy, what they buy and where they buy it. 

VR devices just might make consumers comfortable with buying everything online, even traditional in-store items like cars and mattresses. At the same time, they have the potential to reinvigorate brick-and-mortar shopping experiences. With affordable new virtual retail solutions emerging every day — we’re looking at you, Google Cardboard — there’s no stopping this trend.

Creating real-world experiences online

Brands know that the retail industry, especially e-commerce, is often lacking when it comes to the overall shopping experience. By creating a virtual store, brands will be able to recreate what consumers really want: experiences that feel like real life. 

This will help drawn in audiences with big purchasing power — for one, millennials prefer experiences over stuff — and VR and AR technology will turn the purchasing process into an experience.

But how, exactly, will it accomplish this? Let’s take a look at our favorite assemble-it-yourself furniture store, Ikea. The Swedish company’s developers are fast at work figuring out how they can use the VR experience to create a realistic virtual space. Customers will soon be able to slip on VR headsets to see and feel Ikea products in what seems like reality. Similarly, The North Face already deployed a program that lets shoppers experience high-speed adventures with the help of Oculus Rift headsets in an effort to create memorable, brand experiences.

Buying the big-ticket items online

Consumers are becoming more and more comfortable shopping online for items that are traditionally purchased offline — furniture, cars and home appliances, especially. But there’s still a faction of the population that believes big-ticket items should be bought in a store. VR could be the online ticket for companies that typically sell offline.

What if you could visualize paint colors, a new sofa or a brand-new refrigerator in your home without making a single purchase or even leaving your house? Companies will use the technology to recreate real environments that let you see the impact of the purchase in your personal space — all in 3D. The behemoth furniture seller, Wayfair, has already taken online retail experiences up a notch with its app Room 3D, an AR program that lets you virtually place home furnishings in your space. Shopify is also joining the trend. They’re using the Apple ARKit to develop a virtual home décor platform for HGTV’s Fixer Upper show.

While we’re already seeing some ways the virtual world and the real world can work together in the realm of home goods, the next big frontier could be the automotive market. Cadillac announced that it’s in the development phase for a virtual showroom that would allow consumers to experience different packages and options right from the comfort of a VR headset. That means virtual test drives may not be too far in the future.

Solving problems with click-to-brick

Click-to-brick — otherwise known as research online, purchase offline — is pervasive in the retail industry these days, with more than 65 percent of consumers saying that they conduct online product research before shopping for that product in a store. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — unless you’re strictly an online business.

That being said, there are some reasons it’s in our best interest to curb this trend, the main one being that it leads to higher rates of cart abandonment. The reason so many consumers go into a physical retail location to inform purchases is because they want to see, feel and try the item with their own hands. If consumers can do that all from their smartphones or headset, then they’re less likely to make purchases offline.

The retail industry, especially e-commerce, is no stranger to change. While it seems like the dust has barely settled after the super-shift from desktop to mobile, online businesses need to get comfortable with the lightning-fast changes that just keep coming. When done right, virtual brand experiences have the power to totally shake up the way people shop and inspire them to make a purchase.

Joe Reger is the Co-founder and CTO of Springbot. Founded in 2012, Springbot provides advanced e-commerce marketing technology for small- to medium-sized retailers. A graduate of Georgia Tech, Joe is Springbot’s resident office technology junkie. His passion is helping e-commerce stores grow, one data-driven marketing action at a time, while still making time to jump out of the occasional plane.

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