The time for a more integrated retail format has arrived. Sure, experts have been suggesting this for ages, but it was far from real. Now it’s here. It’s real. There are exciting examples emerging that seamlessly blend retail real estate with digital channels. So, how did we get here?
Since the early days of e-Commerce, traditional retailers have struggled to balance their established brick-and-mortar plays with online and mobile shopping habits of busy, credit card-bearing consumers. In the early days of the Internet, major retailers were incentivized to move slowly. The temptation to rely on known attribution strategies with sure margins, such as direct mail and newspaper inserts, made it easy for companies to put on blinders to the shift to convenience-centered on-demand shopping.
As traditional retailers were scrambling to preserve the past, shopping malls across the country started to visibly shed storied retail tenants, as time-pressed and picky consumers turned to online shopping.
Today, you’ll find retailers providing more omnichannel services, such as “buy online, pick up in-store,” that move toward complementary cross-channel selling by placing a premium on customer convenience. This has become the mantra of e-Commerce: continuing a customer journey online and finishing it in person, or vice versa — whichever they prefer. But this isn’t a new format, it’s just retailers trying to build a bridge between two discrete channels.
Enter augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). These immersive technologies are enabling entirely new digital/physical hybrid experiences that are fully integrated — not awkward popsicle stick bridges. Combined with advancements in 3D scanning and modeling along with computing and graphics card advancements, AR and VR enable retailers to create customer experiences with lower costs and higher margins that will resonate with digital natives.
The industry’s initial uses of VR/AR have already gotten some play in both in-store and at-home applications and experiences, but this technology won't be just another fad. Imagine being able to put on a VR headset from the comfort of your own home, never having to physically travel to a brick-and-mortar store but being able to enter a virtual shopping center that digitally re-creates the experience. Or, in the case of mixed commerce, traveling to a small space to shop endless aisles of a large department store in VR, and use samples only for tactile engagement. This new retail channel that bridges the gap between physical and digital is coming, and it is changing the way consumers shop and retailers engage customers.
The E-Commerce (R)evolution
New technology means new behavior among your customers. E-Commerce transformed everything from the consumer’s day-to-day shopping experience to the way retailers market their products, and this evolution shows no signs of slowing down.
An online presence provides retailers with a constant, 24/7 connection to their customers and vice versa. It’s what we’ve come to expect. Daily needs — clothes, shoes, food — can be ordered immediately from anywhere in the world, even if the nearest store location is thousands of miles away, or in some cases, there’s no physical store at all, like Amazon (although they are starting to open actual stores). Retailers have set the status quo at the ability to find anything one could ever want or need at the click of a button, delivered right to their doorstep. The introduction to mixed commerce was made years ago, we just didn’t know it yet.
Taking The (R)evolution A Step Further
VR and AR are pushing the retailer status quo to a whole new level of instant gratification and purchasing power for the consumer. People still shop in-store, but usually it’s so they can see something they want to purchase physically in front of them or to try it themselves.
Through enterprise-grade VR and AR solutions and the widespread use of 3D product visualization, some retailers are already beginning to enable consumers to use this technology in practical, mainstream ways that allow them to see whatever it is they want to buy in the actual context it will be used in. For example, the Lowe’s Holoroom allows shoppers to digitally explore what their future kitchen or living room options look like, without having to visit an actual showroom. Soon enough, consumers will even be able to see what the actual pair of shoes they’ve been eyeing look like on their own feet, or what that dress will look like in a certain size or color.
(R)evolutionizing Social Shopping
Some people will always prefer the feeling of shopping in-person, but with virtual reality shopping on the table, it will be hard for many more customers to say no. Especially when retailers incorporate one of the biggest appeals to in-store into their VR options: being able to get instant feedback from a real person they trust.
This is the future of shopping; meeting up with friends in mixed environments — the mall or grocery store — as if they’re shopping together in-person, even though they aren’t. Texting and smartphone video chat already allow this to some extent, but VR, AR and mixed commerce will push the digital social envelope even further.
The Peak Of The (R)evolution
Finally, the peak of this evolution lies in the sensory experience enabled by mixed commerce shopping. Senses play a huge role in a customer’s purchasing decision — how a perfume smells, how a sweater feels — and these are often compelling reasons to continue shopping in person. The non-digital attributes of physical objects, so to speak.
But, imagine being able to put on a VR headset and enter a virtual perfume counter. Right now, the idea of being able to smell perfumes even when you’re not physically at a store or in front of perfume samples seems impossible to consider. In fact, this is the future of shopping, and consumers will soon get a taste for this reality as the tech behind VR and AR continues evolving on a daily basis. It’s not a question of if, but when. Customers can see, feel, try on and smell a product for themselves digitally and with an authentic experience.
Mixed commerce is a new footprint, a new format and a new customer experience that assimilates everything that retailers have learned over the past 20-plus years. Its time is now.
Beck Besecker is the co-founder and CEO of Marxent (marxent.com), the leader in Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality solutions for sales and marketing. Prior to founding Marxent, Besecker spent 13 years building interactive marketing solutions for Fortune 500 retailers and brands, including Target Stores and Tesco. In 1999, he founded Copient Technologies, which enabled large retailers to easily manage personalized promotions in-store and online. Copient was acquired by NCR in 2003. Besecker then served as EVP of New Business at Catalina Marketing, the nation’s largest in-store promotional network.