Your camping trip is coming up. You and a friend go shopping for a tent. Spotting one you like, you both crawl inside to check the capacity. But there’s something unusual about this scenario: You’re in Boston. Your buddy is in Houston. And neither of you is anywhere near a sporting goods store.
Virtual reality (VR), along with its sister technology augmented reality (AR), offers retailers the opportunity to transform how people shop. One customer might try on shirts without having to travel to the store. Another might order furniture on the spot, confident that it’s right for the house. Applications using either technology stand to eliminate customer pain points, elevate customer service, and create a differentiated, personalized customer experience. The successful incorporation of VR and AR into retail models also has the potential to vastly change the way retailers are thinking about stores of the future.
Retailers looking to develop a virtual commerce strategy should consider breaking it down along the following dimensions.
First, decide which technology to use for each application. VR immerses the consumer in a simulated world. It requires stand-alone technologies such as headsets and, typically, a controller. By comparison, AR overlays virtual elements onto the real world as seen through a smartphone or tablet.
VR is more exciting, but right now it faces a higher barrier. That’s because consumers aren’t yet accustomed to wearing VR devices (even at home) or to doing anything with it beyond playing games. On the other hand, as Pokémon Go’s success signals, any smartphone can be a platform for AR.
Next, decide whether the application is for in-store or out-of-store use. This probably won’t be an issue in the long run, but today the two environments have different constraints. In-store applications would involve a consumer interacting with AR or VR either within the actual walls of a traditional shopping environment (on the sales floor or in the dressing room, say) or right next to it (through the store windows). Out-of-store applications would have the consumer virtually engage with the retailer at home, from another physical location, or even from a distance. For example, an ecommerce-only retailer could open a 3D channel by virtually recreating the benefits of being in a store.
Once you have an idea of where to invest, identify the customers who would like an AR or VR solution. Look for those who have the most to lose without it, as well as for pain points such as budget or time constraints. And keep in mind that one benefit of AR and VR is the ability to personalize an experience. For instance, a virtual makeup mirror could quickly learn consumers’ preferences and show them new looks without requiring them to wait at the makeup counter.
After that, establish the value proposition. Anyone interacting with an AR or VR retail application must immediately understand the value proposition if they are to keep using it. To help that along, explain how the application solves the consumer’s problems and naturally extends the brand’s connection to the consumer. A sporting goods store can focus on virtual tryouts of a new tennis racquet, for example, creating a point of differentiation from a mass retailer at which sporting equipment is an afterthought.