Escape from reality
Virtual reality has long been held up as something of the Platonic ideal of retail, combining the immersive sensory experience of bricks-and-mortar stores with the accessibility and scale of e-commerce.
But for every visionary at an industry conference who has opined on Oculus Rift headsets and haptic sensors, many more retailers have quietly questioned whether the technology would really impact retail on a large scale. And if so, when?
Indeed, until recently, few retailers in Australia had done more than experiment with the technology in marketing campaigns and one-off initiatives. But last week, Ikea set the bar several rungs higher, with the launch of its VR store.
Analysts suggest this is a sign of things to come, with advancements in micro-processors and software development platforms making it easier than ever before to create impressive VR experiences.
Introducing the concept at a pop-up store at the Strand Esplanade in Townsville on Saturday, the flatpack furniture giant said VR will help it reach customers who don’t live near an Ikea store and enhance its recently-launched e-commerce experience.
“We see VR opening up a whole lot of possibilities to engage customers and present our range exactly how it is in-store,” Ikea Australia’s multi-channel specialist Malcolm Haylett told IRW.
“So customers can go into those room settings and visualise exactly what the products will look like. It’s a lot more interactive than a [regular] web-based visit.”
Ikea’s VR offering is available in two versions, what it calls a demo and full version. Both replicate the typical Ikea showroom, which customers can virtually walk through in different ways.
In the demo version, which is accessible through a website on desktop and mobile devices, customers can click or swipe their way through Ikea’s living room and bedroom showrooms. They can zoom in to see certain ‘iconic’ Ikea products up close and purchase them. They can also sign up for Ikea’s loyalty program, access YouTube content and plan wardrobes and kitchens.
To access the full version, customers have to download a mobile phone app and own a VR headset. In this version, customers focus their gaze on blue prompts to move around the entire store, but they can’t actually buy products.
According to Haylett, Ikea will be watching how users interact with the both versions of the VR store over the coming months before it decides whether to extend the functionality and add support for new items in the experience.
Though he shied away from making any bold statements about the future of VR in retail, Haylett suggests the technology is here to stay.
“From a retailer perspective, it makes sense to be looking in this area. That’s why we invested in bringing this store to life. A lot of the Australian population still sits out of the major markets,” he said.
Timing is everything
So what makes Ikea’s VR store dramatically different compared to the VR department store Myer and Ebay launched last May? Timing, according to experts in the field.
“The technology has finally caught up with the idea,” Deloitte spatial and brand experience leader Robbie Robertson told IRW.
“Up to this year, VR was inaccessible. It was too hard to develop the programs and ideas of how to use it. And it was very expensive. That’s all about to change.”
The next generation of smartphones – including Samsung 8 and iPhone 8 – will be able to deliver a higher quality VR experience, thanks to advanced micro-processors.
Quentin Staes-Polet, the regional director of South Asia Pacific at Unity Technologies, which provides the software used for around 75 per cent of the world’s VR and AR experiences, including Pokemon Go, explains that high-end smartphones in 2018 will be able to display images at a speed of 90 frames per second. This is necessary to prevent images from blurring when users turn their head, which causes some people to feel sick.
“We know that by 2020, 100 million devices worldwide will have that capability. That’s the critical mass when you’ll start to see people making a lot of applications and retailers offering experiences,” he told IRW.
Staes-Polet envisions a not-too-distant future when customers will be able to see clothes in 3D and try them on virtually, using haptic sensors to get information about fit. Retailers may have heard it all before, but they shouldn’t dismiss it.
According to Staes-Polet, most academics in the VR space say the technology leads to a 30-40 per cent increase in customer engagement.
“VR is probably going to grow faster than we think. Nobody can really predict how fast, but the change will be quite dramatic,” he said.
Not so fast
For Joshua Mammoliti, managing director of The Blue Space, a specialty retailer for kitchen, bathroom and laundry products, these technological advancements are merely paving the way for a more gradual uptake of VR.
“I think it will be a very slow adoption. From what I can see in the gaming industry, I don’t doubt it will be in people’s homes in future. But there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done on the customer side,” Mammoliti told IRW.
The Blue Space gives customers the ability to style out a bathroom with their products and visualise it in virtual reality, but only around 50 customers have used the service so far.
According to Mammoliti, that number is on par with his expectations, since The Blue Space only offers the service in a single location. He expects it to go up when the company expands the offering.
But to some degree, when it comes to VR, it’s still early days. Myer, for instance, an early mover in the VR space, is not developing any virtual initiatives.
“Customer engagement [with the Ebay store] was very strong with approximately 30,000 ‘shopticles [VR headsets] given away,” Myer’s chief digital and data officer, Mark Cripsey, told IRW.
“We are not actively working on particular VR initiatives but we continue to monitor and always like to test and learn.”
Deloitte’s Roberston suggests the slow and steady approach has its merits.
“I think what we will see here in Australia is retailers going, ‘Okay, we have access to this technology and we have customers that are able to use it, but how do we enhance it? How do we create moments of delight that make people say ‘Wow’?”