Virtual reality is the kind of technology that gets grouped with artificial intelligence, commercial drone use, and self-driving cars: a futuristic technology that many believe is inevitable, but still quite a way down the road. While widespread adoption is likely a number of years out, potential uses for VR are now starting to take shape.
Retale, a mobile app that brings local circulars to consumers, is jumping right in, launching what it calls “the world’s first virtual reality location-based shopping companion.” Street Fight recently caught up with Retale CEO Christian Gaiser to discuss why the company is betting this technology will become a vital channel for future shoppers.
What kinds of services does Retale currently provide, and what have you learned about local retail as the company has grown?
We connect consumers with their favorite local stores, online and on mobile. Retale was founded seven years ago in Germany, and we expanded to the U.S. roughly two years ago. The company is a location-based mobile destination that acts as a shopper’s guide, giving a convenient overview of all the local promotions from your favorite stores. When you open the app, you find a collection of digital circulars and offers from your local area. We work with 150 retailers and have about 22 million users globally. We connect those retailers with a younger, digitally native audience, and extend their most important advertising method, the circular.
We constantly foster new trends — when the Apple Watch launched, we launched our own Watch app, so when consumers walked past a store, they got geo-fenced notifications. We think that virtual reality has massive breakthrough potential going forward, so we want to be early in the game with that, as well. That’s why we decided to build a concept study of a virtual reality app that connects consumers to retailers.
How are local promotions translatable into VR?
We think virtual reality has tremendous potential to reinvigorate and refresh the shopping experience. [With our app], you enter a virtual showroom — think of an electronics store, and seeing all of the products promoted that are on sale. You can engage with those products, turn them around, see what you can do with them. You will be greeted by a virtual assistant, an individual who has experience and can help you with questions you might have about the product.
Let’s say you want to buy a new TV. The assistant can show you what to do with it, how to connect it, where to best place it in your living room. Or think of a grocery store — you have restrictions like diabetes, or you’re vegan, and the virtual assistant can immediately direct you to [those products] and help you make the best decisions, like what kind of food you can cook with a specific product. Once you’re finished, you can decide if you want to buy online, or buy and pick up in-store, or just add it to your shopping list and go to the store afterwards.
It’s really about choice and helping you make faster decisions, and being more sophisticated when it comes to shopping. At the same time, for our retailers, you’re offering consumers more than just a good price and product. You can help them make the best decision for them. What we found with our platform is that price is just one component — it comes down to what best suits me as a consumer. Virtual reality can really help with that individualized experience.
So this is just a different version of doing research before going shopping?
Yes. With the electronics store case again, you pick your store that you trust, and you just walk into the virtual world and ask the kind of questions that you would ask an expert in-store. We’re bridging the gap between the online and offline worlds in the end.
The retail industry is going through a lot of changes and experimenting with new technology. Should retailers be looking at VR as a serious disruptor and game-changer right this moment?
Absolutely. We think that virtual reality has the potential to become a mass-market product. It won’t be overnight, but we’ll see the same phenomenon that we saw with mobile and smartphones. This will be driven especially by younger consumers, and as it spreads more widely, more and more industries will jump on it. The travel industry is probably the next step, and then it will funnel over into retail. Given the fact that Facebook is strongly driving this, Samsung has its own [VR] product range, and Apple might get into it, I’d say if you’re a retailer with an innovative agenda, you should definitely be at least considering the options of what virtual reality can bring to your business.
How do you think the relationship between VR and the retail industry will evolve in the next couple of years?
I see the biggest value for retailers in the service component. You can offer a lot more services and convenience to your customers through virtual assistance, by not forcing them into physical stores. Even if consumers prefer to go into the stores after, you can navigate them through a lot faster, because they’ll have previously decided with their VR experience what they want to buy. In the research and development phase, you can think of virtual reality customers as your innovative group to help you make smart decisions as a retailer when it comes to which products and services to offer. It basically removes the borders and the barriers between ecommerce and offline commerce and in-store. Virtual reality can morph it all into one seamless experience, which is a really strong pitch for retailers to jump onto the bandwagon.
Annie Melton is Street Fight’s news editor.