While e-commerce has revolutionised the way many goods are sold, offering customers greater level of convenience and forcing many bricks-and-mortar stores to completely change their business model, it is still far from the perfect experience.
The fact is that e-commerce hasn’t been able to completely replace the physical store because there are some things that people just won’t buy online. Who would buy a brand new car, for example, or even a house online without ever having seen it in the real world?
But thanks to advances in VR technology this will all change - and this future is closer than you might think. Most smartphones will have VR capabilities built in within the next couple of years, maybe even sooner, and VR headsets such as Oculus are becoming more affordable all the time.
This means forward-looking e-commerce players will be able to exploit VR to create completely new experiences, changing their relationship with customers and enabling the sale of goods never thought possible through online channels.
While some retailers are beginning to experiment with in-store VR systems - with only limited success - the real potential for this technology lies outside of physical stores and in our own homes. Augmented reality systems are more suited to the inside of a store, while VR is very much something people can enjoy in their own homes and other safe spaces. And while it will be great to get a much more lifelike experience when shopping for goods online, getting a better feel for what a product looks like and its actual physical dimensions, there is so much more that VR can add to e-commerce than this.
Building social communities
Brands are continually looking to build social communities by pushing content, competitions and the like through channels like Twitter. But though this increases engagement between individual customers and the brand, it doesn’t build a real community, where customers are encouraged to interact with each other. This is where VR can bridge the gap - by enabling real people to meet in virtual worlds such as retail environments, people can bond over their shared love of a brand or product range, share advice and anecdotes, and feel like part of a true community.
These communities can then be used by retailers to create real buzz around new product launches - imagine virtual flash mobs of people outside a virtual store, waiting excitedly for the latest gadget to be launched. Suddenly, every e-commerce brand has the potential to experience something akin to the launch of the new iPhone, simply by using VR.
Matching the real-world experience
Of course, there is much about the e-commerce experience that falls short of real world retail. Human interaction is very much missing - the best you might get is a livechat function where you can type questions and get written answers (possibly from a bot). Again, VR can help here. Real shop assistant with virtual avatars - who would be able to work from home - populate your virtual store and can answer questions about products, advise on choices, and even execute on upsell opportunities. While e-commerce providers will need to consider how best to utilise and train staff for these roles, the potential to offer a much better experience to the customer is very real indeed.
Additionally, as mentioned above, there are some items that people just wouldn’t buy online, as they need to get expert advice. VR makes this possible for all sorts of high-value purchases, meaning that whole new categories will open up in the e-commerce sector - motor vehicles, property, and luxury items such as yachts, for example.
Blending the best of both worlds
While in some respects e-commerce struggles to match up with bricks-and-mortar stores, in other ways it is much better. Think, for example, about the actual transaction - in virtual stores, there will be no need for customers to queue. The checkout can be as quick and as smooth as it would be in any other e-commerce operation, with the same level of security in place.
But more importantly, VR enables the actual marketing and presentation of a product to be done in the best way possible. You can create an incredibly impressive 3D environment in which to display products - imagine a cathedral, with beams of light shining through stained-glass windows, and on a podium in front of you is a necklace, or diamond ring. You don’t have to limit yourself to building a representation of an actual bricks-and-mortar store in your virtual retail space - you don’t even have to be limited by physics. The only thing that limits you is your imagination.
VR-enabled e-commerce for everyone
And this experience isn’t going to be restricted to only the well-off, nor will it only be only large brands that can afford to create these virtual retail environments. Smartphone technology is advancing all the time and it will only be a few years before every handset is VR-enabled. Specialist VR hardware is coming down in price all the time and thanks to the gaming industry it’s likely to be in more and more homes very soon. On the retail side, third-party technology platform providers will be able to help even small and niche e-commerce companies create stores for their customers - they won’t have to rely on making big investments in infrastructure and in-house expertise to achieve this.
All retailers should be thinking about the VR strategy right now, even if they won’t be able to execute in the immediate future. The worse thing to do would be to just think of VR as a novelty, an added bonus but something that isn’t strictly necessary. The fact of the matter is that VR will open up a whole new world of possibilities for e-commerce providers and bricks-and-mortar retailers - new product categories, new customer experiences, new upsell opportunities - so they should be thinking about really pushing the envelope. What is technically possible to create in VR is changing all the time, so be ambitious, don’t skimp on the graphics, and create the most mind-blowing virtual retail environment you can.
Peter Dobson, CEO, Geekzonia
Image source: Shutterstock/Ahmet Misirligul