Feature Story

Virtual and augmented reality transform the retail experience

by Jason Deign

The future of retail is here with virtual and augmented reality

The future of retail is here with virtual and augmented reality.

Despite massive growth, online shopping still only accounts for about 10 percent of all retail sales worldwide. But a pair of goggles could change all that, research from 2009 suggests.

Back then, Joann Peck and Suzanne Shu made a striking find: the very act of touching an object makes us desire it and value it more. And if we can't touch it, just being able to picture having the object can have something like the same effect.

This helps to explain the lasting success of the high street. When you can hold a product in your hand, you want it more. And holding things is hard to do online. Peck and Shu's advice? "Encourage ownership imagery," they say.

Virtual reality (VR) gives you a way of getting closer than ever to the things you want. That is where the goggles come in. Virtual reality (VR) gives you a way of getting closer than ever to the things you want. Take a new condo. It could be the biggest spend you ever make in your life. But if you buy off-plan, it is hard to see what your home would look like.

See also: Virtual reality: coming soon to a cubicle near you?

With VR, though, you can walk from room to room, move things around, or change the color schemes on the walls, all without being able to visit the real thing. It is perhaps no surprise that real estate firms are starting to use VR.

"Virtual reality headsets have been a major step forward for buyers viewing property," says Richard Forman, Head of Sales and Marketing at U.K. real estate player Forty/8 Developments.

"Off-plan buyers can walk around and see everything in the finest detail, from looking down at what plug will be installed in the bathroom sink, to peering underneath the dining room table," he says.

See also: Is VR the next big storytelling medium?

Retail names are starting to get in on the VR act, too. Sneaker maker Converse, for instance, has a VR app that lets shoppers try on its shoes without going into a store. Alibaba, the Chinese online retail giant, has an entire VR store.

To find out which online products might work best with a headset treatment, it helps to look at where VR has been a success so far, says Peter Luff, President of Ipsos Retail Performance.

"The types of products that play within the VR world tend to be immersive, remote, complex, and expensive," he says. "With this set of criteria, you can quickly draw up a shortlist."

Such a list might include cars, trips abroad, kitchens and bathrooms, and home goods such as beds and sofas, as well as training sessions to help you understand a product, without having to read a manual.

This list is growing by the day, as VR headsets drop in price and enter more and more homes.

The headsets could also be a boon for stores, not so much to replace what is there but to increase the range of goods, says Magnus Jern, Chief Innovation Officer at leading end-to-end mobility company DMI and Chairman of TAPP Water.

Thanks to VR, "in a small shop you could view tens of thousands of products," he says.

Stores could also just put one item on display and then use VR to customize it for your own taste. Think of sitting on a plain sofa and using VR to see how it in a color that matches your curtains.    

Based on Peck and Shu's research, the only thing better would be to have it in your home.

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