The convergence of VR and commerce could transform the way we shop, but the VR store is further off than we think, and it isn't just about the technologies current penetration among consumers. Too often, thought leaders cite VR's lack of ubiquity as the primary reason it hasn't yet revolutionized commerce. They're not wrong -- it's a factor. But the barriers run far deeper.
It helps to look at the issue from a purely transactional perspective, and ask why someone would opt to purchase in a virtual store versus online, mobile, voice or brick and mortar. Practically speaking, VR can't match the convenience of shopping online, on mobile, or with a simple voice command. Alternatively, VR technology, while rapidly improving, cannot yet match the tactile fidelity of an in-store, in-person experience. This is why the standalone VR store has, and will continue to have, trouble gaining traction.
Last year, eBay launched a VR department store in partnership with Australian retailer Myer. While a commendable effort, it offered no clear benefit to the consumer over existing shopping methods. The store's launch video called out features like being able to get a close-up, 360-degree view of products in virtual space, a curated experience based on the user's shopping habits and a cursor that can be controlled via head and eye movement. Cool? Sure. Valuable to the consumer? Not really. Is a close up, 360-degree view of a jacket any better in VR than in great 360-degree product photography or web videos? Are there any major online retailers that don't leverage available data to curate the shopping experience? And is controlling a cursor via head and eye movement easier than swiping on a mobile device, or A simple voice command? Not really.
The Myer VR store proved that VR is not going to enhance the shopping experience by attempting to duplicate what already works well in online and mobile shopping. In hindsight, eBay and Myer would have done better to carefully consider the context of VR in the path to purchase. After all, the reality for consumers is that all shopping touchpoints in combination lead to a purchase.
Making VR stores viable
To give VR and commerce a chance to be profitable in the future, we need to play to VR's strength, understanding that it works best in a supporting role to the purchase process. A cohabitation of VR and commerce will push consumers along their path-to-purchase by providing transcendent experiences at home and in-store.
Brands like IKEA and Lowe's have already played into VR's unique advantages, creating room-scale VR experiences for customers with size and color customization options built in to meet their dream-home specifications. From there, customers can go on to purchase the products they virtually experienced.
VR can also be used to put consumers directly into the experiences that their products sell. Imagine an experience where The North Face customers could explore the summit of Everest, and then, when they go to the online store, see a main page filled with gear featured in the experience. Or imagine a consumer researching a pair of Nikes on a mobile device, who then goes to a Nike store, where a sales associate helps her try an immersive VR experience where she is pitted against LeBron James in a game of one-on-one, before she goes to purchase the sneakers at the register.
There are many ways this mix can unfold, but the point is that VR can and should play an active role in commerce. VR enhances the experiences realized by customers along their paths-to-purchase, rather than requiring them to complete a purchase in-headset.
The best immersive experiences are pure, visceral and unique to the platform. They can truly move people. If The North Face can let someone explore the summit of Everest from the comfort of their home, do they also need to sell a jacket in the same experience?
Brands, blow your consumers' minds and they'll keep buying your products. That's the best way to use VR.