I freely admit to having been a bit of a geek about VR for a very long time now. But when you start seeing VR devices advertised on primetime TV – the Sony Playstation VR, in this case – then you know that geekery has definitely gone mainstream.
It’s easy to see what a huge difference VR can make to gaming but it has a lot more to offer than that. In fact, I think we’re about to see a revolution not just in entertainment, but across sectors as diverse as healthcare, education, tourism, and – yes – retail.
So how would ‘Virtual Retail’ work? Well, for a start, a Virtual Retail store would be worlds away from our current experience of internet shopping. The technology already exists to allow you to sit in your own home, using a VR headset, and move about inside a virtual store just as you would in a real one. In time, as VR gets even more sophisticated, you’ll be able to get your avatar (which could be created to match your own height and size) to try on clothes, for example. As the sensory subtlety of VR evolves you’ll even be able to feel the weight and texture of fabric. And because everything is digital in the VR world, the store you visit will be tailored to you. Your size, your preferences, and co-ordinated accessories appearing side by side with items you browse. And the product range can be far bigger than anything a physical store could hope to carry, giving consumers the advantage of choice and making stock management many times easier for the retailers.
There are no surprises, then, that both brick-and-mortar and online clothes stores are looking seriously at VR – ASOS, for example, has a proof-of-concept VR store developed by Trillenium, which you can try out on your iPhone, Android phone, or Samsung Gear VR device.
And it’s not just fashion that will flourish; homewares are another segment ripe for VR. IKEA already has an application available on the HTC Vive which allows you to walk around one of their kitchens, make customisations to the colour scheme, and even cook meatballs.
Online retailer eBay is experimenting with a virtual reality department store allowing consumers to select products by looking at them through ‘shopticals’ (a fancy name for an eBay branded Google Cardboard). E-commerce giant Alibaba believes that VR shopping is the future and has built its own VR research centre, GnomeMagic Lab, to explore this area. Alibaba also created its own virtual reality payment system called VR Pay allowing users to buy products within VR by nodding their head – a current issue for the eBay VR experience which requires the user to take off the headset and complete their transaction on the regular eBay app.
Grocery shopping could go virtual too. In fact, VR could solve one of the biggest problems the grocers have with online shopping, which is the way it kills the ‘impulse buy’. People usually shop online using lists, and internet stores don’t have the ability to tempt the shopper visually the way physical stores do. But in VR, they can. Once we introduce artificial intelligence algorithms which will place items that are relevant to you in the right place in ‘your’ store at the right time, VR in retail (or ‘v-commerce’ as some are calling it) becomes an even more powerful proposition.
The opportunities for retail are clearly immense, but there are some big challenges too, of which the technology itself is only one. The user experience of shopping in VR and whether it has enough value to supersede the in-shop experience will be the key question over the next few years. One thing, though, is already clear, and that’s the importance of getting ahead of the game: when it comes to all types of emerging technology, the risks of being late to party are real, not virtual. The only way to seize competitive advantage is by being an early mover.
If you’re as excited as I am by the possibilities of VR, the best place to start is by experiencing it yourself. We have all the latest kit at our office in Hays Galleria in London, and you’re welcome to come in and experience the technology for yourself. We can answer your questions, and talk through how VR might enhance or challenge the way you currently do business. We can help you develop an emerging technology strategy tailored to your company, and make the business case for the investment you’ll need. We can even develop prototypes – a preview of what your own ‘store of the future’ could be like. If you’re a forward-thinking retailer looking to start 2017 with something unique to offer your customers, I’d be very excited to help you to explore the opportunities that VR could bring.