In times like these, many like to describe the changes our beloved retail industry is experiencing with the term disruption. Thanks to new technologies, and new developments many believe the industry of tomorrow will be totally different compared to today.

Among little revolutions shaping the retail of the future, I believed it was interesting to take a look at augmented/virtual reality and try to comprehend a few of the opportunities these technologies offer in retail. Therefore, I had several talks with a few specialists in the field, and a few major retailers who gladly shared their developments, excitement and sometimes even frustrations on the subject.

Augmented reality vs Virtual reality

First hurdle on the road to VR/AR Nirvana is confusion. Indeed, many still confuse virtual reality and augmented reality. To make it simple virtual reality is an artificial computer-generated simulation or recreation of a situation or real life environment. It often requires the user to use a headset device. On the other hand, the technology of augmented reality layers computer-generated enhancements atop an existing reality in order to make it more meaningful through the ability to interact with it. To help you compare think of the following example: with VR you would be able to fly with eagles in the sky; with AR you can make an eagle appear on your desk and pet it. In a way virtual reality is certainly more immersive, but augmented reality provides more freedom for the user, and more possibilities for marketers because it does not need to occur with the help of a head-mounted display.

Still developing

Secondly, I noticed that in terms of developments, the field of specialists is divided. Some ‘experts’ are still at the stage where they claim that thanks to virtual reality “we can do many, many, many things… and possibilities are endless”. But once you scratch a bit the surface of what those specialists are selling and you ask for concrete examples, these experts are still “developing” or can’t give concrete applications yet. Therefore I understand the several retailers I spoke to and their standard answer concerning their development in virtual reality. All had a similar statement: they are of course following VR/AR and its developments. However today it is still difficult for them to measure the impact the technologies can have and what is the return on investment one can get out of it.

Yet a few cool items emerge

Thankfully I met a few specialists who are further than the consultant stage and who developed a few concrete projects and applications. Actually some of these developments are very cool might I add. Just to give you a few items:

With reality you can recreate a full physical store. Now the technology today is not as perfect to allow the user to pick up every item on the shelves and one would still notice here and there a few problems. But this kind of recreation can offer the ability to give a different experience to customers online. For the retailer the advantage is that it is not limited to a physical space, and it can present a very wide catalogue of products. But it would also be a great opportunity to use different store/shelf layout without having to actually modify a physical store. So imagine all man-hours a retailer can save to develop the perfect store layout and for his tests in merchandising.

Another example of application of virtual reality is provided in product development. Thanks to VR, testing new tastes and products can now happen in a contextual environment. This is very interesting because up till now taste tests would happen in a test environment or a lab. According to Haystack, a Belgian company with quite some experience with this: with a contextual environment provided by VR headsets, the predictability of the results is definitely increased.

The contextualization is not just helping testing but also selling. Imagine your customer being able to try his new watch, his new clothes or accessories thanks to augmented reality. A latest example of this is Ikea who developed an app helping customers to visualize how their new furniture would look like in their home.

Getting there

Thanks these examples we can eventually notice that Virtual and Augmented Reality already have a place today in the retail industry and can help both B2B and B2C approaches. AR and VR can help with:

  • Supporting the sales process
  • Show rooming
  • Merchandising optimization
  • Training of merchandising and sales teams
  • And many more….

But my search I could conclude that VR/AR is not at the stage where Artificial intelligence is today. In AI many international players of the retail industry are developing projects already. But when it comes to AR/VR, the technology still has a reputation of being a little gadget aspect, even though some concrete applications are finally emerging.

Nevertheless to conclude, I had to mention one last example to express a final concern and also because I am a trade fair aficionado. Here and there I receive the information from someone developing an event that visitors can access thanks to VR. The idea is good if you think that you don’t have the hassle of travel, of developing a costly physical booth, etc. However I wonder if it would work. And this concern is simple. A trade fair has one strong core element: the human contact. Without human contact the event loses its soul. Therefore, for this example of VR Trade fair, but also for any VR/AR application, I don’t see a successful outcome unless the human interactions are preserved. Otherwise what’s the point of developing this kind of technology if it would erase human interaction?

Between 19 and 21 September 2017, Paris Retail Week will once again showcase French Expertise and will be the only event in Europe which addresses the omni-channel problems associated with 360° retail.
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