Is The Retail Customer Experience About To Go Virtual?


Just when everyone starts to get their head around the impact of multi-channel customer interactions, advances in technology make new and innovative ideas possible and retail is often the frontrunner for the adoption of new technologies.

A handful of major retailers have started to experiment with new and innovative ways to draw customers into physical stores to interact with their products or services. Technology is often at the heart of these new experiences, whether a company is simply taking a step closer to integrating between different channels or going beyond to experiment with new technology to provide customers with that wow-factor experience that is likely to give them a competitive edge over high-street rivals.

Recent examples have included creative uses of augmented reality (AR) in providing another dimension to the sales process. There is potential for AR to provide new and interactive experiences to customers in-store. For example, Lego introduced a series of kiosks that feature AR, so that when a shopper holds up a box of the kit they are intending to buy, the kiosk displays the completed model as if it were in their hands in front of them.

Clothing store Uniqlo has also incorporated AR technology into its retail space and has placed LCD screens within store mirrors, essentially creating an augmented fitting room that allows shoppers to see what they look like in the clothes ‘virtually’, without actually having to physically try on any of the clothes.

Not only are these retailers offering something unique to their customers in the form of an experience that they can’t get anywhere else, they’re also encouraging shoppers to spend more time in their stores and interact with products on multiple levels.

Yet the latest talk is around how virtual reality (VR) will be next to really shake up the experience retailers will be able to offer their customers in the future, fuelled by a number of impressive launches in the virtual reality space over the last couple of years.

While originally intended as a way to experience truly immersive gaming, ideas are already churning around how virtual reality can be used for different applications, particularly to enhance the retail sector. The exciting news is that consumer level kits are already available, with prices going down rapidly.

If you think beyond the interactive gaming experiences already possible with VR technology, then virtual reality has the potential to create even wilder and more technically interesting experiences for customers. There is the potential for truly immersive retail experiences where customers can interact in a fully virtual retail space, potentially experiencing it as if they’re walking around it, with a full 360- degree virtual experience. In turn, this could lead to the launch of entirely new store formats altogether.

VR also has the potential to shake-up the product design process by re-creating virtual versions of products not yet manufactured, giving companies a clearer sense of what the customer will experience before waiting for the first prototype to come off the production line, speeding up design revisions and potentially spotting flaws before a product is made. Similarly, using VR, retailers are able to test out new store layouts and installations before printing and production takes place.

By bridging the gap between the online and in-store retail experience currently available, VR has the potential to increase ecommerce revenue and deliver a pseudo-real experience one step on from the augmented reality (AR) experiences that are already possible.

With the opportunities made possible by technology, it’s an exciting time for those working in the retail and customer experience sectors. While it’s never clear exactly what impact new technology will have, or which innovations stand the test over time, what is quickly becoming clear is that the customer experience of tomorrow will be very different, and virtual experiences that deliver real impact are unlikely to be as far off as you might have thought.