what was she thinking?
Three steps retailers can take to prepare for virtual reality. We do not recommend this one PHOTO: Sebastian Voortman

For years, retailers have been bracing for their version of Armageddon because in their minds, the decline of shopping malls, hastened by customers’ growing preference for shopping online, signal a coming brick-and-mortar apocalypse.

Yet in the US, a country with almost 7.3 square feet of retail space per capita — compared with 1.7 in France and just 1.3 in the UK — will not be eliminating its brick-and-mortar retail model anytime soon, even as some big names falter. 

In fact, many companies like Amazon, Warby Parker and Bonobos that started solely online are now finding success opening physical stores. It’s clear that customers still want to engage with brands beyond browsing through products in an online catalogue.

Who Will Thrive on Retail Chaos?

Industry-wide changes are coming: Bankruptcies will occur and some brick-and-mortar retailers will move completely online, while other online retailers will expand into brick-and-mortar locations. The retailers that thrive as the market changes will be those that integrate in-store and online experiences, whether they have physical stores or not. 

But as consumers come to expect these omnichannel experiences, retailers will need to provide convenient and interactive features that bring all their channels together. To do this, retailers need to start thinking about ways to bring the brick-and-mortar experience to their consumers’ smartphones and laptops — and vice versa.

3 Steps to Prepare for AR and VR 

Emerging technology like virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) will be the solutions that bring these features together. In fact, VR and AR devices are projected to become a $4 billion market within the next three years. 

And while development of the technology to accomplish that rests in the hands of hardware and consumer electronics companies, retailers can take three concrete steps right now to prepare for the widespread adoption of the technology that will drive the evolution of enhanced customer experiences:

1. Think like your customers

It’s easy to tempt retailers with flashy technology, but investments in new platforms are only as good as the impact they will have on the customer experiences you provide.

Remember that your brand won’t benefit from adding new channels if those channels can’t provide real value for your customers. And to provide that value, your company needs to understand how your customers currently prefer to interact with your brand — and how to make those interactions better.

Before experimenting with radical changes to your ecommerce strategy, though, make sure your current digital experiences are as intuitive and frictionless as possible. After all, customers won’t buy into new interfaces if they aren’t easy and enjoyable. 

So master the omnichannel basics like inventory visibility, in-store pickup options, flexible payment support and even interactive chatbots before branching out too far. We’ve found that retailers who have a head start on the basics and are already blending their digital and in-store experiences have a more solid foundation when getting ready to implement VR and AR.

2. Start with the familiar

When exploring new channels like VR and AR, take cues from the user experiences your customers are already familiar with. Even shoppers who might never have interacted with AR models at retail are often seasoned pros. Whether they realize it or not, they’ve been catching Pokemon on their cell phones and getting wild makeovers on Snapchat for quite a while now.

That’s one reason why smart retailers have made AR their first foray into this changing landscape. For example, Warby Parker has been letting customers try on glasses virtually for years now, and IKEA allows shoppers to model furniture in their own homes using a mobile app.

AR strategies like these are easy, engaging and exciting for customers, allowing them to interact more immersively with brands, both in stores and their homes. And unlike VR, AR technology doesn’t require customers to invest in expensive devices other than the smartphones that are already in their pockets.

Bottom line, AR that’s rooted in customer technology gives retailers prudent ways to dip a toe in the water to help them decide which AR advancements will offer even better future ways to incorporate AR and VR technology into brick-and-mortar locations. 

3. Keep VR on your radar

Of course, VR is often what excites consumers, especially as they become accustomed to more and more sophisticated options. And while retailers certainly need to keep VR on their radar, the reality is that most consumers don’t yet have headsets like Oculus or Samsung devices in their homes. The technology is gradually improving, but hasn’t yet reached the mass adoption level.

Meanwhile, for a glimpse at what the future holds, retailers can look to in-store VR experiences like Ashley Furniture’s in-store showrooming model that lets customers design interiors through virtual headsets, smart dressing rooms with mirrors that sync to online catalogues or even Samsung’s ambitious 837 location in New York City’s Meatpacking district that bills itself as a “technology playground and cultural destination” for store visitors.

It may pay for your brand to get in early by partnering with the tech giants who are leading the charge on making VR happen. That’s because they often have the resources and know-how to help brands learn to build virtual environments, avoid mistakes and ramp up existing solutions. In our experience, the early adopters could well be the ones to bet on when it comes to integrating the virtual and in-store shopping experiences of the future.

A Word About Investment Spending

It’s always hard to carve out a budget that supports speculative technology, but the truth is that VR and AR are no longer speculative. And like every past ecommerce development we’ve seen, the retailers who will ultimately find success are the ones who will have experimented with the technology long before it becomes the expectation.