You’re standing in the middle of your favorite clothing store, looking around at the shelves of jeans, shirts and accessories. You walk to a rack of T-Shirts and flick through to one that catches your eye — the store has it in your size. You add it to your shopping basket and head to the cashier.
Once you've paid, you pop over to the pharmacy to pick up some medicine and the bakery for a loaf of still-warm, fresh out-of-the-oven bread.
And then you remove the virtual reality headset. You’re back in your living room with a cup of tea on the coffee table.
A Happy Medium Between Brick and Mortar and E-Commerce
Virtual reality commerce — or v-commerce — could offer a compelling new shopping experience in just a few short years.
Neither the technology, nor most stores, are able to provide this kind of experience yet, but growing interest suggests VR will soon act as a kind of middle ground between the convenience of e-commerce and the interactive and pleasurable elements of bricks and mortar retail.
V-commerce could potentially overcome the major limitations of both bricks and mortar shopping and e-commerce. Visiting a store to shop for clothes, shoes, hair products, bags of pasta, hummus, pots of live basil or anything else is time consuming, and when it's raining out, probably the last thing you want to do.
By contrast, e-commerce can be done on your lunch break or from your tablet at the kitchen table. And yet, it’s nowhere near the same experience as being in a real store, with helpful staff and the possibility of scanning shelves of products and discovering something you never knew existed.
Let's look at how v-commerce could fill this gap.
From Market Research to Market Place
Kantar Retail, a division of London-based international market research agency Kantar Group, is one of a select number of innovators working in this area.
Kantar provides market research services, helping its customers work out the optimal shelf layout and product placement to catch customers' attention. Victoria Bradshaw, global communications manager at Kantar Retail explained,
“Whether it’s a food retail store, a high end fashion store, a fast food restaurant or even a store of the future, we can virtualize any space or environment. Time and cost are reduced, the decision-making experience is step changed and the new levels of connectivity between departments in getting to market delivers extreme competitive advantage.”
While market researchers are currently the main beneficiaries of VR's benefits, Bradshaw sees a much broader potential future:
“VR will further embed itself in the ecosystem of retail and play a critical enabling role in building the future of retail. Whether we will all start staying at home to do our shopping via our VR headset is yet to be seen. What is more certain is that there is no doubt shoppers are thoroughly embracing the experience that VR brings and if that helps the purchase process whether at home, in store or somewhere else then retail should grab that opportunity with both hands.”
Consumers are definitely interested in V-commerce.
Since 2014, Chicago-based PR firm Walker Sands has produced an annual Future of Retail report, based on a survey of US consumers. 2016’s report highlighted V-commerce.
Fifty-five percent of respondents said they expected VR would impact their consumer decisions, and a third said they would be more likely to shop with retailers that offered a VR experience. Interestingly, respondents reported they'd be more likely to consider buying certain goods while using VR — with clothing, electronics, household goods, luxury items and books especially popular.
V-Commerce: Reality or Pipe Dream?
So, will this vision of V-commerce ever emerge? Will we soon be shopping in VR stores from our bedrooms? Will VR offer that ideal customer experience, somewhere between bricks and mortar stores and e-commerce?
Almost fifty percent of respondents to the Walker Sands research explained they didn’t think VR would impact their shopping experience in any way. Of course, it’s an entirely hypothetical question — perhaps they would have said the same about e-commerce in the early ‘90s.
Nonetheless, a number of barriers exist that V-commerce needs to overcome, including:
V-commerce depends on customers owning a decent quality VR headset. At present, these headsets are still prohibitively expensive for most.
Until VR becomes mainstream and everyone has their own VR headset at home, V-commerce will remain a virtual possibility.
Requires Investment by Stores
It took decades for most bricks and mortar stores to successfully provide decent quality e-commerce stores. Even now, many of these offer relatively unsatisfactory experiences.
The significant level of investment required to build great quality V-commerce experiences would be a big obstacle in an industry with traditionally slim profit margins.
Do We Really Need VR?
The beauty of e-commerce was that you could order a book or a dress while on your lunch break — it was fast, efficient and easy and it filled a big need — people didn’t have the time to visit physical stores to shop.
V-commerce doesn’t fill an obvious need in the way e-commerce did. At best, it would make the e-commerce experience slightly more compelling. While that's a nice to have, the demand doesn't appear as strong.
It's too soon to say whether v-commerce will revolutionize customer shopping experiences or if it will simply extend and enhance those experiences in certain retail scenarios. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how retailers innovate here, and how consumers adapt to this proposition.