Omnichannel retail, the fusion of virtual and physical retail, is lauded as the key to success in our tech-heavy economy. This strategic blend has met its ultimate form in AR and VR. AR, or Augmented Reality, and VR, or Virtual Reality, use tech to superimpose a virtual world onto the user’s surroundings. Retailers from IKEA to Macy’s are adopting AR and VR platforms to create an all-new shopping experience that fuses the virtual and the physical. Imagine a virtual department store, accessible from your living room, or a phone app that lets you see what that new couch you’re considering looks like in your own living room. The possibilities are endless and thrilling.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of challenges with the growth in popularity of AR and VR. Many consumers are not fully comfortable or familiar with the technology, suggesting that accidents are inevitable. AR and VR, too, could easily become a short-lived gimmick or novelty if it’s employed carelessly. As with any new technology, retailers will have to move carefully and intentionally in order to reap the rewards―and avoid the pitfalls―of AR and VR.
Here’s how to make your AR and VR integration seamless, effective, and relevant.
AR and VR allow for a radical departure from the limitations of traditional retail. Long dressing room lines, an unwelcome makeover, online purchases that don’t quite work in person--all can be resolved using the right AR technology. IKEA, for instance, has developed an in-store AR app that allows customers to preview furniture in their own home. For example, a shopper can know for sure if their bright red couch will clash with orange drapes, without the commitment of a purchase . Online clothing retailer ASOS is developing tech to let customers see how clothes will fit on their body, saving time and money on returns. Similarly, Sephoras across the country have debuted “magic mirrors” in-store that let customers see what a certain makeup will look like on them without the need for samples or makeup remover. The problem-solving possibilities are endless.
When it comes to VR, the world of retail is expanding exponentially. As VR headsets become more common (there are expected to be 100 million headset users by 2022, according to the PYMNTS Virtual Reality in Retail Report), businesses are considering how they can create even more immersive shopping experiences. This is perhaps best used to communicate information in a radically experiential way. Take the partnership between London’s One Aldwych Hotel and Dalmore Whisky—by using a VR headset, any willing participant can enjoy a “VR whiskey cocktail”, an experience that transports the drinker straight to the distillery where the whiskey was aged. Imagine, then, a clothing store equipped with VR masks to whisk you away to Paris Fashion Week, or a candy store that takes you to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The potential for radical new experiential retail is huge.
But Not Too New
The danger of AR and VR lies in the uncanny valley--meaning that the photo-realism achieved by computer generated imaging creates a disconnect as audiences find themselves asking, “why doesn’t it look more real?”
While the potential is endless and often thrilling, it is easy for AR and VR to come across a little awkward for users, particularly when it comes to shopping experiences. Perhaps the best (or worst?) example of this was Alibaba’s 2016 debut of their Buy+ platform--a phone app-cum-VR experience where users can enter a virtual mall to buy products from stores like Costco, Macy’s, and Target. Users look at an item for a few seconds to “select” it, and then entera screen with a rotating product image and details. Another motion of the head and the product is added to your virtual cart, or even purchased using pre-saved shopping information. It sounds like a dream fusion between physical and brick-and-mortar retail--a mall wherever your phone goes--but the app was met with a relatively negative response. The “mall” was deemed too empty, too impersonal, and too hard to navigate-- lacking all the joy of brick-and-mortar shopping and the ease of online shopping. As retail expert Nikki Baird said, “why go to a clunky, lonely virtual store, when you can go to a smoothly functioning store (you don’t have to navigate a joystick and some buttons to pick up an item) that is vibrant and doesn’t feel like you’re the last human left after the apocalypse?”
The key is to avoid using AR and VR as a gimmick, and think critically about how it can be used as a problem-solving tool or an exciting and easily-integrated attraction. Shoppers want something intuitive, easy, and interesting. AR and VR can be, and likely will be, essential in navigating the demands of an increasingly tech-based retail environment. Keeping it fresh without complicating a system that already works will be the trick to making retail current, and AR and VR are no exception.