Moving from novelty to revolutionary: VR adoption in retail

There is a tendency to overestimate the time it takes for enterprises to adopt new technologies such as VR. People also underestimate the speed at which adoption happens when it does occur.

This has definitely been the case for retail.

For years, VR ‘prophets’ have been promising that immersive virtual retailing was just around the corner. While their day of vindication has not yet come, the nay-sayers are slowly, but surely, being proved wrong. 

Many retailers have made substantial investments over the last few years to transform their businesses across various physical and digital channels, but clearly this has not been sufficient to bring foot traffic back through physical stores.

The ‘experience business’

Slowly, retailers are accepting that mobile devices have become a favoured buying channel. Customers now shop at home, at work, in the store or waiting at the vet.

42% of all mobile sales generated by the leading 500 retail businesses come from mobile apps. Time and time again, studies conclude that customers are demanding personalized, contextually relevant, real-time experiences from retailers.

we are all now in the experience business

In this sense, the UK has a lot of catching up to do:

According to DMI’s latest research on mobile experiences in retail, not only is the UK’s average score (on the mobile maturity model) less than half that of America’s. The UK is also rapidly falling behind the European average score, despite the UK outpacing the rest of Europe when it comes to adoption of mobile technologies.

You might say that every retailer’s brand is the sum total of experiences they deliver. We are all now in the “experience business”.

VR has huge potential to deliver this in retail.

Reimagining retail

The biggest mistake would be to recreate existing physical stores, malls and shopping centres in a virtual world. There is no reason why we must import the limitations of the physical world into the digital.

Instead, retailers need to reimagine retail completely in a VR world.

How can VR give a better, richer, more helpful and rewarding experience than the physical world?

can VR give a better, richer, more helpful and rewarding experience than the physical world?

This can include virtually trying on clothes, through avatars, even for people who are not actually there, making buying clothing as a gift much easier. Style-specific fashion advice experts could also be beamed in to advise individual customers in-store.

This could be done, as IKEA demonstrated, with placing furniture, art and other objects in your home or office to see what they will look like.

Potential buyers could try what it’s like to drive the new car, motorbike or bicycle before its even available, or attend a concert and meet the star backstage, all in the virtual world.

Truly immersive VR even has the potential to replace some of the demand for physical goods with digital replicas, and thus reduce consumer waste.

Moving past novelty

The possibilities are truly endless, and we have only just gotten a taster. This being said, current VR experiences have yet to attract more than the novelty-oriented consumer.

Most of the retail VR technologies available on the market today are gimmicky and not yet solving real problems in retail. There is still some development to undergo before being on par with medical VR, which is successfully being trailed in surgical education and cooperative treatment.

experimentation should start immediately with a focus on solving real customer problems

Finally, retail’s slow adoption shouldn’t be seen as demoralising. Over the next year, VR will advance in other areas meaning more customers will purchase VR headsets and AR will begin to incorporate more sensory inputs than just visual (such as tactile or olfactory systems).

Entrepreneurs shouldn’t wait for a “killer app” to force their hand. Experimentation should start immediately with a focus on solving real customer problems, rather than simply launching a VR project for PR purposes.

At the moment most of the buzz has been created by physical retailers such as Ikea, Lowe, Lexus Car Dealerships but it’s online and ecommerce companies that have the most to gain from VR technology.

There is a good reason Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon and Snapchat are investing heavily in this space. Once VR takes off, it will fly, and you want to be ready to fly with it.

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