Virtual Reality as a tangible retail tool?

Endaba Group

Virtual reality (VR) is a hot topic at the moment. Virtual reality is on the rise, and the only thing that could stop it is if it turns out to be a fad like 3D TV or motion-controlled video games, despite the hype and manufacturer’s investments.

Mark Zuckerberg, after Facebook acquired Oculus Rift, predicts VR to become “a part of people’s daily lives” and has the potential to be “the most social platform ever”. In fact, the next 12-18 months are predicted to “make or break” consumers’ adoption of VR. At the moment, VR is in a very exciting place, full of possibilities for creativity, new experience and profits! It is expected to be a $1bn business in 2016 (hardware sales of $700m and $300m on content). VR hardware shipments will total 9.6m shipments worldwide this year, whilst smartphones will total nearly 1.5bn. VR hardware is projected to rocket to 64.8m shipments by 2020, whereas smartphones will climb to only 1.9bn.

The transformative technology reaches far beyond gaming to reshape multiple industries, such as travel and hospitality. One of the most significant opportunities to transform is the retail space. According to a report into future retail trends, 41% of people in the UK like to use new technologies such as VR headsets, to experience how products would look in their home. In addition, 33% said they would be interested in using VR to see how they would look in certain homes.

eBay's virtual reality store with Myer
eBay’s virtual reality store with Myer

VR is a dream for consumer-facing brands, granting the opportunity to create immersive, entertaining content for both brands and products, shutting out the real world and adding value for the consumer. Retailers of all kinds are embracing aspects of “experiential retail”, introducing everything from restaurants and cafes to more immersive experiences:

Ikea customers can explore kitchen interiors with VR
Ikea customers can explore kitchen interiors with VR

VR has the potential to fundamentally transform the human experience of retail and shopping, depending on the type of retail and product category, and lift sales for those ahead of the curve. Retailers can define an innovative leadership position by building custom VR experiences which engage the consumer beyond physical and digital brand experiences. V-commerce – the next evolution of ecommerce – as retailers and brands can create fully immersive, contextual shopping experience which go beyond the current world of 2D ecommerce. Home improvement stores can benefit as customers will be able to truly visualise home remodels in a tangible way, whilst sporting goods stores can allow consumers to test athletic gear close to the actual environment it’s made for. There are also the benefits of cost-savings, ease of use and speed of implementation. VR can allow customers to view products that do not physically exist yet. Customer insight, range planning, in-store marketing and new store formats and retail concepts are at the epicentre of VR’s capability. It also offers numerous cost savings, cheaper to build than physical build approaches, and cuts the time of traditional processes.

It’s only been the past year that the steadily increasing fascination with VR has reached its current fever pitch, with headsets like the mobile-based Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard debuting early 2015, the higher-end Oculus VR becoming available in March this year and Sony’s PlayStation VR release in October.  Awareness of VR today remains low, with about 80% of consumers only occasionally or even never hearing about the technology. It has a limited audience at the moment, principally gaming chiefs.

What’s preventing VR from mainstream hands is the lack of compelling apps. There’s also the downside that the technology can produce fairly acceptable experiences, but similar to 3D, some people sensitive to latency can feel quite woozy after a session. The difficulty is a factor to consider: VR is an entirely new medium, therefore it is incredibly easy to make something which does not work well or is uncomfortable. There are no standards, best practices or turnkey solutions, nor are there any expectation of results.

In fact, many retailers are still struggling with integrating mobile into their strategies, even as innovation of technology is only increasing. As a result, many retailers will be unprepared and ill equipped for the shift to virtual reality.

“Change is happening at an increasing speed, especially with technologies of augmented reality and virtual reality, which are perfect examples of how consumer technology adoption forces retail to adjust and evolve. The retail industry needs to catch up!” Lynette Deutsch, CEO of Endaba

One final question we have to ask is if the investment into VR ultimately will change how we utilise technology, in all sectors, or if indeed it is another marketing gimmick.