Virtual Retaily – How VR & AR will change shopping

As UK retail adapts to digital disruption this blog looks at how immersive technology can revolutionise the retail experience

“So where are you thinking?” is a common question a travel agent will ask as customers lean over the computer or pore through brochures for inspiration, having not much to go on besides photos, an arbitrary star system, perhaps an online review and the price.

This isn’t an ideal customer experience, so travel agents must look at new ways to present themselves on the troubled British high street and one great example of using innovation to get people through the doors belongs to the 175-year-old travel agent Thomas Cook.

They launched a service called ‘Try Before You Fly’, which uses a virtual reality (VR) headset to let customers immerse themselves in hotels, resorts and beaches, giving a feel that Tripadvisor or glossy photos could never replicate. Trials of this technology have been successful with high conversion rates and a novelty factor that gets people in to store, which is so important given the challenges facing UK retail.

VR also creates new reasons to visit high streets and shopping centres. Marketing types bang on about how consumers want ‘experiences’ and we’re seeing this as retail chains and shopping centres launch dedicated VR centres to draw the crowds in. A hugely successful Star Wars VR game bought thousands of extra people into the London Westfield centres and there were massive queues for the ImmotionVR experience in Manchester’s Arndale Centre. Bournemouth, Bristol, Newcastle and Leeds may read like a list of second-rate football teams, but their main shopping districts now all have VR experiences and the Intu group want a VR experience in all 20 of their large shopping centres. This will only increase as the cost and hardware barriers come down, especially as the new generation of standalone devices don’t require expensive PCs.

As well as VR, augmented reality (AR), which overlays digital objects over the real world (think Pokemon Go or Snapchat Lenses) will make a massive difference too, especially as it is more accessible due to the fact AR only needs a smartphone to work.

A good case study is the ‘Ikea Place’ app which uses AR to overlay funny Swedish named furniture in customer homes. It renders images with 98% size and proportion accuracy and can even adjust the furniture to match lighting conditions in the room. Ikea haven’t launched this in the UK yet, but they have credited the app for a rise in US sales.

Dulux have bought their famous colour chart into the digital age by using an AR app to show you what a wall will look like in different colours and Zara use AR to show what clothes are like and let you buy them in one click. These are only a few examples and with Apple and Google recently launching their official AR development kits there will be a huge proliferation of AR apps in retail.

Just as e-commerce and the internet revolutionised how we shop, immersive tech will too. Analysts IDC estimate that retail will spend $950m on immersive technology globally in 2018 (more than any other sector) and account for 66% of total user cases in the market. With the UK the leading G20 digital economy and with a world leading creative and studio sector, we are very well placed to take a good share of this prize as more retailers go virtual.


By Craig Melson, Programme Manager, Digital Devices, Consumer Electronics, Export Controls and Environment and Compliance, techUK


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