Virtual Reality and Ecommerce: Unlocking the Potential of This Exciting Emerging Technology

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The ecommerce industry is always evolving — just like retail more broadly and, of course, consumers. Implementing every new technology isn’t just impossible; in fact, it’s a bad idea to try. But so too is not keeping up with new technologies and thinking about ways they may benefit you in the future. 

If as a merchant you want to provide a novel experience, create and strengthen relationships with your customers, and/or leave a lasting impression, virtual reality could be worth considering more closely.

Virtual Reality Growth and Statistics

Virtual reality is starting to pick up steam in the mainstream tech world. In fact, eMarketer forecasted last year that across 2020, 50.2 million people would use VR technology at least once per month.

As VR becomes more accessible, researchers think usage will gain traction quickly, and that number of users will rise to 64 million by 2022.

What is Virtual Reality and Ecommerce?

Virtual reality refers to an immersive visual environment. It can refer to 360-degree videos, photos or product demos; or the more complex “headset” VR enabled by devices like the HTC Vive or Oculus Quest. 

For retailers, the use cases typically either augment or innovate on in-store experiences, or digitally recreate the benefits of shopping in person.

Let’s look at some of the ways merchants are already using VR, as well as some of the potential for even richer applications in the next few years.

Virtual reality vs augmented reality.

As augmented technology and virtual technology keep evolving, it can sometimes be hard to know which is which. Here are some definitions from the science and technology museum the Franklin Institute:

Virtual reality is an immersive experience in a completely simulated environment, excluding everything in the physical “real” world.

Augmented reality, on the other hand, doesn’t completely shut out real life — instead, it adds digital elements to a live view of the world, typically via a smartphone. AR technology is a bit more advanced than VR at this time.

Mixed reality (MR) combines elements of both AR and VR, and Extended reality (XR) is an umbrella term covering all technologies that enhance senses. It includes VR, MR and AR.

Applications of VR for Ecommerce

Before we dig in, it’s worth warning against “shiny toy” syndrome. Virtual reality is cool, and it’s still new enough to have a pretty big wow factor for a lot of people. But just because you can use VR doesn’t mean you should. 

You need to make sure whatever you dream up clearly maps back to your goals and speaks directly to improving the customer experience or advancing customers to convert.

Here are some of the ways ecommerce stores are starting to think about virtual reality.

1. Virtual stores.

Virtual showrooms are one application for the technology, enabling customers to visit your  virtual storefront online from the comfort of their home. Customers may be able to browse through clothing racks similarly to being inside a store. They could also meet with friends in the virtual world and shop together in real-time.

In October 2020, Marketwatch published an article on technologies that facilitate online shopping. One of those technologies — Wormhole — is a platform “that creates real-world simulations of group shopping using avatars.”

Technology like this has been evolving for years, though. In 2016, eBay announced a partnership with Myer to create “the world’s first Virtual Reality (VR) Department Store.”

2. Virtual try-before-you-buy.

Using a VR headset in your brick-and-mortar store can be beneficial in several ways. Maybe you have products with a lot of different configurations; a VR headset could provide a great way for shoppers to see the possibilities without having to store them all in your showroom.

In 2017, Audi used the Oculus Rift headset to provide buyers the ability to view their dream car in 3D, then customize every aspect — from the paint color to the body kit and engine — in a way that’s much more interactive than simply selecting upgrades from a list on a computer screen. 

These immersive visualizations and interactions can help shoppers really understand what they’re evaluating and what they want, and can pay dividends for an in-store commerce experience.

3. In-store experience that surprises and delights.

Though it might seem counterintuitive — especially while COVID-19 continues to spread — VR is actually a great tool to use in physical stores to give customers a memorable shopping experience. In 2015, The North Face launched a campaign that offered shoppers a VR experience immersing them in Yosemite National Park.

“Our brand mission is to inspire a life of exploration, so we felt like this was a great way to enhance our storytelling, use technology and transport people to the outdoors,” said Eric Oliver, then-director of digital marketing at The North Face in this Digiday article.

4. Live events.

Ever since the beginning of COVID-19, our ability to hold in-person events has been largely limited. But what we all learned from it was that sometimes virtual events really could still provide a similar opportunity to be together and experience the same thing at the same time. 

Live events, pop-up shops, et cetera, are often part of the game for shops that work hard to build community among their shoppers. Virtual reality could be a way to find that community even without in-person interaction.

5. Interactive education.

If your product is at all complicated to use, or if your customers aren’t confident with it, VR can be a way to give customers an immersive learning experience. Lowe’s did this with their Holoroom technology, a VR application that immerses users in how to use a specific tool or perform a project.

Advantages of Adopting VR For Your Online Store

The particular advantages for you revolve around what kind of experience you want to create — and that will be based on your particular kind of ecommerce business.

1. Create a memorable customer experience.

Particularly while virtual reality technology remains relatively new, the immersive nature of VR will put people “inside ever-expanding virtual worlds and find themselves at the center,” according to a report on AR and VR from McKinsey.

2. Spark word of mouth.

More than just being memorable, a VR experience is also sharable — ”it gets customers talking about you and sharing their experiences on social media,” according to Linnworks. Word of mouth is still a powerful marketing technique, especially when it’s exciting and authentic.

3. Strengthen consumers’ bond with your brand.

Using VR to immerse consumers in a different world is the ultimate tool for “show, don’t tell.” By immersing them in a completely different environment, you’re “enabling a form of telepresence that evokes levels of empathy as if one were present,” says a report from McKinsey.

4. Make people more sure of their purchases.

Using virtual reality technology can in some ways mimic the real-world experience. With 360-degree product views, you customers can look at the product from every angle, better understand its scale and proportions and rely less on product descriptions in cases of language barriers.

Ultimately, when done well, VR technology could help online shoppers be more confident with their purchases — increasing conversion rates and decreasing returns.

Implementing Ecommerce VR

Because this is a relatively new industry, it could be a complex process to get your ecommerce virtual reality tool off the ground and into the hands and/or minds of your consumers. Here’s the steps you should follow once you find an experienced team to help you through the process.

1. Determine your goals.

“Using VR” is not a goal. You have to know exactly what you want to achieve by implementing this new and complex technology. Your goal might be one of the following, but there are many more examples, too:

  • Gain press attention with a novel shopping experience 
  • Give customers a more experiential way to encounter your products
  • Reduce return rate by communicating more robust product information

2. Figure out what kind of experience to deliver.

This piece is a little more tactical. You may, for instance, create an experience-based deliverable like North Face’s in-store Yosemite VR experience; a product-based experience, as in the example we saw from Audi; an interactive experience where shoppers can interact with products, friends or even shopping assistants; and so much more.

3. Develop your VR experience.

Your only limit is the current VR functionality. Unless you’re already a VR development whiz, you’ll probably need to consider the following things:

The Technology

What level of technology do you need to create your ideal experience? That will depend on whether you want a passive or interactive experience, and whether you want the experience to support users walking around an environment.

Developers

It’s important to find a developer who’s experienced in VR. Remember, this is a relatively new technology so it might take a little longer to find the right person.

Also, as Annie Eaton — CEO and co-founder of Futurus — told Ecommerce Guide: “To create a virtual reality environment takes a different kind of developer rather than your typical app or web dev. It takes a visual programmer — a hybrid between a designer and a coder.”

Hardware

What kind of hardware will your users need to partake in the experience you’re creating? If you’re planning to deliver the experience in-store, you can consider room-scale hardware that delivers a highly robust and immersive experience. 

However, if this is something you want consumers to engage with on their own, you’ll need to choose hardware that’s accessible to your audience. The currently popular mainstream headsets are still a bit pricey, putting them out of the range of the average consumer.

4. Test your user experience and performance consistently.

The technical functionality and the user experience have to work so tightly together for virtual reality to provide a fully optimal experience. 

  • Make sure all the elements work correctly and respond as intended to human intervention, if applicable. 
  • Go through the experience with a beginner’s mind to assess for usability blockers, like poorly designed navigation or an interface that isn’t intuitive.
  • Make sure the experience doesn’t cause discomfort or nausea for the average user.

5. Get the word out about your cool new VR initiative.

It’s important to let people know about the cool stuff you’re doing. But you should also remember that you’re not marketing VR to them — you’re still marketing your store, your product and your experience. VR is just the tool. 

Also, marketers will want to consider how consumers will experience the show. If they’re participating from home, one option is to give away headsets to your audience, like eBay and Myer did to promote their virtual department store.

Wrapping Up

Virtual reality has come a long way in the past 5-10 years, but it still has a long way to go yet, too. Certainly, the applications are clear for enterprises with higher budgets and advanced developers. But mainstream technologies are still priced on the high end and the return on investment might not be as high for midmarket brands and below. 

That said, technology is rapidly advancing all the time, so it would behoove every retailer to at least start thinking about what might be possible and how much impact it could have.

Virtual Reality in Ecommerce FAQs

What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality refers to an immersive visual environment. It can refer to 360-degree videos, photos, or product demos; or the more complex “headset” VR enabled by devices like the HTC Vive or Oculus Quest.

How is virtual reality different from augmented reality?

While virtual reality is a fully immersive experience in a completely simulated environment, augmented reality doesn’t completely shut out real life. Instead, it adds digital elements to a live view of the world. Think of Pok-e-mon Go or the apps you use to test paint colors on your walls or see if a couch would fit in your living room.

How much is VR use expected to grow?

VR is already pretty widely used, with a forecast that 52.1 million people over the year 2020 used VR at least once a month. That’s 15.7% of the population. As VR becomes more accessible economically, usage will likely gain traction quickly — they estimate users could rise to 60.8 million by 2022.

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What are some of VR’s in-store applications?

If you have one or more products with a high level of customizability, a VR headset could provide a way to show shoppers all the possibilities in as immersive a way as possible. Audi did this with an Oculus Rift headset in 2018, so buyers could customize their dream car in VR.

How can retailers use VR to augment the digital ecommerce experience?

Virtual showrooms give customers a way to visit your storefront online in a more immersive way. You may be able to browse through clothing racks similarly to being inside a store. You could also meet with friends in the virtual world and shop together in real-time.

What are some early examples of large retailers implementing VR features?

The North Face, in 2015, offered shoppers a virtual reality experience of Yosemite National Park as a way to tie back to their brand mission: “inspire a life of exploration.” And Lowe’s Holoroom technology is an immersive experience providing shoppers with “hands-on” learning around projects or tools.

How can offering a virtual reality experience grow your shoppers’ brand affinity?

Most simply, exciting and memorable experiences stick out in people’s memories — and that’s one step on the journey to brand affinity. If you evoke an emotional experience with your use of VR, you might just get a life-long fan.

How do I determine what kind of VR experience to develop?

What business goal do you want to achieve? Here are a couple of examples. If it’s brand awareness, you might create an experience with the aim of getting press attention and word of mouth. If it’s higher conversion rates or fewer returns, perhaps the tactic would be a way to better research or virtually experience the products. 

What do I need to start developing a VR application for my business?

Once you have your goal in mind, there are three things to think about: what kind of technology will your experience require, who can develop within that technology, and what kind of hardware will using it require?

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