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Making innovative retail a reality with VR/AR

(Image credit: Image Credit: Knight Center for Journalism / Flickr)

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have been touted for many years now as the next big thing.  What is exciting is how these technologies are getting more mature and finding new applications beyond being interesting novelties.  The opportunities to harness VR and AR for retail is one emerging trend.

But, first it is useful to go back to definitions.

Virtual reality allows users to venture into an entirely different world, replacing reality with a synthetic field of vision generated using computer graphics. Like a digital Narnia, the users’ surroundings change as they look around, but this does not resemble their own physical world in real time. Users might be sitting on the couch, but the VR headset has transported them to an experience where they are enjoying a roller coaster ride or sitting on a bench next to the Eiffel Tower. What users see changes based on where they look, just like in real life. If look up toward the sky, they’ll see the sky.

Augmented reality on the other hand – technology accessible via devices such as headsets or smartphone cameras – refers to technology that combines a camera’s vision with computer-generated graphics to augment the viewer’s surroundings with additional information. The viewer’s surroundings then become augmented with additional information. For example, a roofing contractor could put on a headset to have the dimensions of a roof overlaid onto their field of vision.

Both AR and VR are being used in a variety of industries, from healthcare to manufacturing to entertainment, but for the retail sector in particular, the practical uses of these innovations are still in their infancy. So, what are the benefits of investing in VR and AR, and how can brands and retailers capitalise?

Enhance the retail experience

For the modern consumer the retail experience can be just as important as the product itself in converting a shopper into a customer. Whether shopping in store or online, with VR technology, a retailer can turn any space into any number of sizes and shapes at the drop of a hat, increasing shopper dwell time and improving the likelihood of purchase. Retailers could also exchange sales assistants for famous faces to enhance the retail experience further.

Online, immersive technologies can be used by shoppers browsing from the comfort of their own home, for example by allowing them to see what a piece of clothing would look like on them or what a sofa would look like in their lounge with AR.

Offer variety

Retailers can often make the mistake of thinking their customers already know what they want to buy when they visit a store or website. In fact, it’s often browsing that helps consumers make a purchase decision, particularly when it comes to shopping for gifts. VR means shoppers can walk into a virtual shop wherever they are and have a conversation with a virtual assistant (either human or AI) who could make personalised recommendations, picking up products and presenting them in real-time. In addition, because the stock room in the virtual store is not limited by physical space, there is a much better chance a product will be in stock.

Inform and advise

AR offers another advantage in retail as a method of aiding the selection process. Walking around a store, AR devices can identify key information which may influence the shopper’s decision. This could feature peer or expert reviews and ratings, sourcing information regarding ethical guidelines or allergy information, or could draw upon personal information such as shoe size to advise on availability. As consumer decisions become more informed on supply chain, quality, and many other factors AR will become a popular tool to aid otherwise time-consuming product research.

Drive sales

AR and VR technologies can allow retailers to pick up with shoppers that have been browsing and maintain communication with the consumer to complete a sale and drive loyalty. Customers would be able to revisit the store with queries about a product or purchase, for demonstrations, or ongoing support including returns policies. There is also potential for the technology for a digital avatar to appear in your home and explain how to install a curtain rail or put a bookcase together.

It can be extremely difficult to know the right time to invest in any new technology. According to the famous Gartner Hype Cycle phases, innovations usually end up on the ‘Slope of Enlightenment’ –  an extended period of improving technology, lower costs, and more development of a supporting ecosystem.

VR and AR are currently in the ‘trough of disillusionment’. Virtual reality and augmented reality have been hyped for so long, but have not come close to reaching their potential.

But with tech giants from Google to Facebook (Oculus) now making major investments that will underpin the next generation of VR and AR, there is no time like the present for brands and retailers capitalise, so that they ready as soon as the tech goes fully mainstream.

Kelly Goetsch, Chief Product Officer, Commercetools

Kelly Goetsch is Chief Product Officer at commercetools where he oversees product management, development and delivery. Kelly contributes extensively to expertise in commerce, microservices, and distributed computing.