By Magnus Jern, chief innovation officer at DMI
People are generally bad at making predictions about the future. We tend to think big discoveries will happen faster than they do but, when they do arrive, they still seem to take society by surprise. This has been the case in retail for years; the arrival of virtual reality (VR) in retail has been proclaimed by its aficionados, who promised that immersive virtual retailing was just around the corner. While their day of vindication has not yet come, the nay-sayers are slowly, but truly, being proved wrong.
The customer is no longer limited to physical stores, shopping from home, work, the grocery store or while waiting in a queue. Repeatedly, studies are concluding that customers are demanding personalised, contextually relevant, real time experiences from retailers. You could even say that what defines a retailer’s brand is the aggregate of the experiences they deliver, ie, retailers are all now in the experience business.
VR has, undoubtedly, a huge potential to deliver this experience-centric model to retail. It’s not about recreating 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 should focus on solving problems for their consumers.
How can VR give an even better, richer, more helpful and rewarding experience than the physical world? A much discussed example of this are hands; they’re the part of our bodies we see the most, and being a disembodied head can be somewhat disconcerting. But hands are unnecessary in the virtual world, where things can be made to move with thought alone, and it would represent a clear inefficiency to limit VR shoppers to the use of four limbs.
The possibilities are truly endless, and we have only just got 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; it still has some development to undergo before being on par with medical VR, which is successfully being trailed in surgical education and cooperative treatment.
This problem solving should include solutions like using avatars to virtually try on clothes, especially in gift giving settings where we are unsure about the real size of the ‘giftee’. What about dedicated fashion advice experts being virtually accessible across the world, or trialling furniture, art and other objects in your home or office to see what they will look like? Then there is attending a concert and meet the star backstage, all in the virtual world. Truly immersive VR even has the potential to substitute some of the ‘consumerist’ demand for physical goods with digital replicas, and thus reduce consumer waste.
And though many of these solutions are not exactly around the corner, retail’s slow adoption of VR technology shouldn’t be seen as demoralising. Apple’s ARKit is an example of accelerated scale as developers will be able to launch new AR enables services to 300 million iPhone users.
Over the next year VR will advance in other areas, more customers will get VR headsets and AR begins to include more sensory inputs than just visual (such as tactile or olfactory systems). This is why executives charged with managing innovation shouldn’t wait for a disruptive app to force their hand. They should start experimenting now, though making sure to solve real customer problems rather than just launch VR programmes to be on the bandwagon.
It’s about building expertise rather than competing at this point. At the moment most of the buzz has been by physical retailers such as Ikea, Lowe’s, Lexus Car Dealerships and others taking a lead, but it’s the online and ecommerce companies that have the most to gain from VR technology. There is a good reason that Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon and Snapchat are investing heavily in this space. Once it takes off, the key players agree, it will pick up pace fast.
DMI has expertise in mobile strategy, UX, web, and app development, omni-channel commerce, brand and marketing, big data management and analytics, and secure device and app management.