VR is the Next Commerce Frontier. Strap on Your Headset

An unfamiliar sight has emerged among the familiar photos of family gatherings posted to social media this holiday season: people wearing next-generation virtual reality devices. Between the turkey and pie courses, grandma strapped on a headset and jumped into a futuristic reality. 

Thanks to rapidly evolving technology, lower prices, and the support of 5G networks, this uncommon sight may soon become a common experience. While just 11% of Americans reported owning VR technology in 2018, VR hardware and software sales are expected to skyrocket 587% to $5.5 billion by 2023, up from an estimated $800 million last year.

The move from tethered to standalone VR stands to change the way users connect with every aspect of the world — including e-commerce. 

Not yesterday’s VR experience

The trick to effective virtual reality is just that — creating an immersive, believable suspension of reality. This year, after a multi-year hiatus from the last time I tried out VR, I picked up one of the new Facebook Oculus Quest devices. My knee-jerk reaction: Wow, this technology has come a very long way. While my previous VR experiences involved being wired up to a PC or using a clunky Google Cardboard, the Oculus is a nearly seamless device. The video and audio are incredible, and you can dive into an experience within a minute of taking it out of the box. 

Incredible audio and video aren’t reserved for gaming alone (though it is pretty rad to cross lightsabers with Darth Vader — a word of caution, though: your family will take a ridiculous-looking video of you doing it). Oculus’ web browser allows you to surf traditional websites or visit optimized sites that stream a VR world around you. A new update even allows users to enjoy those experiences controller-free. With a simple JavaScript API, any website can become an immersive journey.

Where VR will succeed in commerce

Retailers need to take a focused approach to make the most of this new VR opportunity. The ones that are successful will follow the principles that make any modern commerce brand stand out: providing customers with convenient, accurate, personalized service. But brands need to be especially careful to gain and retain customers’ trust: 53% of consumers say privacy concerns are their No. 1 deterrent to trying new technology, and 56% feel VR has received too much hype. 

Here are three ways brands can break through these impressions to prove VR’s reliability and worth.

  1. Invest in high-quality production. As I mentioned earlier, part of the reason VR has failed to gain widespread adoption lies in a lack of believability. Now that technology has caught up with the human imagination, budget concerns are brands’ primary barrier. Brands that invest big in hardware like 3D and VR cameras as well as production software and skilled teams, will make a splash right out of the gate. Already, new software companies like Obsess are popping up to help the likes of Tommy Hilfiger bring virtual stores to life. It’s only a matter of time before business is booming for this new category of firms.
  2. Give shoppers an otherwise-impossible experience. The “ideal” VR commerce experience differs for every brand, and every customer. But that’s part of what makes the technology so exciting. It’s a huge chance for brands to push the limits and create a fantasy world. For example, as someone who enjoys cooking shows, I would love to see celebrity chefs in an interactive VR partnership with a kitchen brand. The chefs would create meals and interact with me while I asked questions about their knives and possibly make an in-VR purchase.

This no-limits environment particularly benefits experiential companies whose shoppers can’t touch or see their products. Cruise ships can send customers on a virtual voyage, letting them test out cabins, preview meals, and swim with dolphins. If this virtual vacation is amazing, just imagine how much better the real thing will be.

3. Blend the best of e-commerce and in-store experiences. Curated visual merchandising is a highlight of in-store shopping because it creates an aspirational experience that consumers can see and feel. Who doesn’t want their living room to look like a well-decorated Crate & Barrel display?

Furniture companies have done their best to replicate these experiences in augmented reality, but most have yet to go beyond a rudimentary representation of a rug in your room. Shoppers can’t enter the reality of the store; they’re still experiencing it through their phones. But VR furniture shopping can merge in-store displays with the comfort of customers’ homes — an especially attractive feature for those who live far from major metropolitan flagships.

Shoppers have been slow to warm to VR. Just one third of consumers (33%) say they already use or would be likely to use the technology to interact with brands. I’d be curious how many have experienced what VR truly has to offer today — everyone I show the Oculus to has had no idea the technology had come so far. 

So, while we’re still a few years from widespread adoption, VR is on the precipice of impressing generations of increasingly digital shoppers. Smart brands will be ready when those customers arrive.

Harry Chemko is the CEO of Elastic Path.

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