The future of retail shopping could lie at the corner of virtual reality and augmented reality. These emerging technologies are poised to disrupt the retail sector in exciting ways, providing nearly endless possibilities for brands and stores, “virtually” transforming the way consumers will shop in the not-so-distant future.
What Are Virtual Reality And Augmented Reality, Anyway?
Virtual and augmented reality don’t have a single definition. Loosely defined, Virtual reality (VR) is a three-dimensional immersive experience in a computer-generated environment. The user of a VR device typically wears a special headset that covers the eyes and generates a 3D scene that includes the periphery to create the feeling of being inside the scene.
Augmented reality (AR) broadcasts the actual environment around a user on a screen, typically a smartphone or tablet, and overlays a computer-generated, realistic graphic into the “real world” scene. The game “Pokémon Go,” is the most famous, recent application of AR on a mass scale.
Cool Ways Virtual Reality Is Working In Retail Today
These technologies have been mostly seen as a form of entertainment like Pokémon Go and recent consumer VR games and apps for Samsung and Google phone/headset combinations. However, there are myriad potential use cases in the retail sector. Brands and stores are already using virtual reality and augmented reality today in a number of ways:
- Westfield Mall: London shoppers are using VR headsets to enhance fashion preview events.
- North Face: The outdoor apparel company uses VR technology to let customers “visit” Yosemite National Park from North Face retail outlets to enhance brand storytelling around exploration.
- Lexus and Volvo: The luxury car brands let shoppers take virtual test drives in a more realistic setting than typical driving simulations.
- Lowes: Customers who are remodeling a room in their home can actually step into that room once the design is chosen.
- Converse: Lets customers “try on” shoes before they buy to make sure they are the right fit and look.
Retailers are also trying out “smart mirrors” that let customers see what an article of clothing will look like without having to try it on, and augmented reality that lets furniture shoppers see how a piece will look in their home before they buy.
There’s Gold In Them Thar VR Hills (In The Form of Data, Of Course)
Early adopters are using VR and AR to enhance the customer experience and provide entertainment-driven interactions. Virtual shopping experiences are also available, allowing customers to browse a store’s offerings without leaving their couch. Not only do these types of experiences let shoppers have an in-store experience from home, but it can also provide invaluable behavioral data that goes far beyond traditional heat mapping.
VR devices can track where customers’ eyes travel as they shop in a virtual store, which areas of the store hold their attention the longest, which types of configurations they respond well to, the signage that catches their eye, the packaging that elects responses, and more. So not only can VR be used to enhance the customer experience, but the analytics it generates can also be used to improve the online, virtual and in-store shopping experience.
The Future Is Bright For Virtual Reality In Retail
While many consumers are ready for VR, Generation Z, currently aged 23 and younger, is particularly ready for a more technology-driven retail environment. Nearly 80% of young people say they are more likely to visit a store that offers virtual reality or augmented reality experiences, and the same amount say they would be more likely to visit a store that provided interactive experiences to help them choose products. It will be a few years before Generation Z has the buying power to truly help retailers really cash in on VR, but by the time this generation reaches that point, virtual and augmented reality should be more mainstream, and its practical use cases should be more clearly defined.
For now, virtual and augmented realities are still emerging technologies, but now that personal VR and AR tech is being sold directly to consumers, investment is on the rise. Startups in the sector raised over $650 million in 2015 alone and by 2020, investment is predicted to reach nearly $30 billion. Retailers would be wise to consider the ways in which virtual and augmented reality can enhance the customer experience and to start dipping their toes in now, so they can be leaders in the field, rather than followers.