Will virtual reality transform web shopping?

Mar 02, 2015
Tom Ryan

According to Walker Sands’ "2015 Future of Retail Study," more than a third of consumers (35 percent) would do more online shopping if they were able to try on a products virtually using a device like Oculus Rift.

Nearly half (49 percent) of survey participants are interested in trying Oculus Rift once it comes out this summer and one-third would be interested in purchasing such a product (32 percent).

Two in three (66 percent) would be interested in virtual shopping, and 63 percent expect such capabilities to change the way they shop. On the other hand, 22 percent indicated they would be less likely to visit a physical store with the introduction of such technology. The study is based on an analysis of more than 1,400 U.S. consumers.

Virtual reality headsets have been limited to hardcore virtual reality enthusiasts and gaming content developers but consumer versions are coming.

Oculus VR, which Facebook acquired last year for $2 billion, has yet to officially confirm the release date of the Oculus Rift consumer version, although various reports are pointing to April. Supporting its arrival, Facebook indicated last week that it was adding virtual reality capabilities to its apps for social engagement.

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Samsung recently began demoing and selling Gear VR, its phone-powered virtual reality headset, at 100 Best Buy stores across the U.S. Beyond scores of startups, other major players in the space include Sony, Microsoft and Google, which last year invested $500 million in Magic Leap, a product promising a better 3-D experience than Oculus Rift.

Writing for Wired last year, Brian Shuster, CEO of Utherverse Digital, said he believes the arrival of virtual reality will be every bit as transformative as the World Wide Web. Soon enough, he wrote, people will be able to completely redesign their homes in minutes after viewing 3-D virtual replicas of their interior spaces, experience roller coaster rides from far-off amusement parks on their couch, and be transported to shopping malls with friends.

Wrote Mr. Shuster, "Everything you see is your size, and you can try outfits on an avatar that has your identical proportions. You can match items with an online inventory containing a copy of every item of clothing in your real-world closet."

What do you think the arrival of virtual reality technology will mean for e-commerce? How will it affect physical stores?

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12 Comments on "Will virtual reality transform web shopping?"

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Liz Crawford
5 years 7 months ago

YES—online shopping will be transformed by virtual reality, using gaming technology. And brick-and-mortar shopping will be transformed by augmented reality.

However, it’s not only shopping which will be transformed. Our daily lives and the very experience of living will be transformed, whether enhanced or made worse, by these digital overlays.

Matt Schmitt
5 years 7 months ago

Virtual reality is likely to be a boon to e-commerce, but we’re still talking about the cart before the horse. The timing of any significant consumer adoption is not “near-term” and the jockeying of platform providers (Facebook, Google, Samsung) will create a lot of confusion and “wait and see” from consumers and application and content developers alike.

When it does get traction, virtual reality may indeed provide more immersive and satisfying experiences for consumers. “Web stores” will provide browsing experiences more similar to physical stores.

Where does this leave physical stores? Digital technologies will continue to be woven into the fabric of the physical world. VR won’t play here, but augmented reality (AR), mobile apps and immersive place-based experiences will help the physical stores become more connected with the digital realm.

Cathy Hotka
5 years 7 months ago

The technology may well advance beyond what retailers can manage. Mr. Shuster says “everything you see is your size,” but it will be a serious challenge for retailers to translate that fit into a given size number. (At H&M I’m a medium, but at J. Crew I’m an extra small.) Love the technology! But translating it into actual fit will require a concerted retail industry effort to standardize sizes, and I don’t see that on the horizon any time soon.

Ken Lonyai
5 years 7 months ago

Virtual reality and augmented reality have their places, but this is far from a real product simulation. A shopper can see how furniture or decorations may look in a room of their home and get some feel for the look of clothing simulated on their body, but appearance is only one sense of something. If the sofa seen in augmented reality is too soft or the fabric of a dress is too stiff, the consumer is not going to be happy.

Used strategically it will help some verticals. As a panacea, the hype will never live up to the reality.

Naomi K. Shapiro
Naomi K. Shapiro
5 years 7 months ago

No matter what you do, seeing your size demonstrated on an avatar is not the same as seeing it on yourself! As for furniture arrangements, maybe you can get an idea, but it’s not the same as the real thing. And how many other exciting digital innovations (Google Glass, drone delivery, 3-D printing, etc.) will we go through before something sticks?

Marge Laney
5 years 7 months ago

In my new book “Fit Happens—Analog Buying in a Digital World” I talk extensively about the challenges of online apparel buying. Statistics from online retailers show that anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of online apparel purchases are returned and 70 percent of those are due to fit issues.

Buying clothes online, especially for women, is risky. Just because something fits doesn’t mean it looks good, and there’s the rub. Online retailers need to make the sale twice: Once online and again when the customer completes the try-on when they receive it.

Online retailers will continue to try to innovate to reduce the risk of online apparel shopping with products such as this, but at the end of the day they can’t beat the try-on. Online retailers will need to mitigate the risk and time delays by offering discounts and exceptionally lenient return policies: both profit killers.

Bottom line: Shopping may be digital but the decision to buy is an analog process requiring the shopper to try-on before saying ‘Yes, I’m going to buy this garment!’

Dan Frechtling
5 years 7 months ago

Virtual reality promises immersive entertainment experiences. Many believe physical stores will be revolutionized. I’m not so sure.

Virtual reality will improve shopping, but it certainly won’t have same impact as the World Wide Web did, as some claim. Here’s why:

  1. Virtual reality will improve on some of the facets of retail, but not all. It can replace the physical drive, but not the physical activity of going out. It may or may not replace the physical associate.
  2. Virtual reality will benefit some categories, some shoppers, sometimes. It’s promising for apparel and other impulse products. It can supplant physically buying standard products where consultation isn’t needed. It can make a big difference for shoppers located far from venues. It’s a good solution during busy times of the year or adverse weather.
  3. Some of the benefits mentioned aren’t virtual reality. For example, “everything you see is your size, and you can try outfits on an avatar that has your identical proportions.” These are personalization technologies.

Virtual reality will reinvent gaming, theme parks and movies. But not shopping.

Lee Kent
5 years 7 months ago

This may be a little off point, but I watched the movie “Her” this weekend. In the movie, everyone was walking around in their own little world, talking into headsets and seemingly depressed.

I love virtual reality and especially augmented reality. However, will it replace the shopping experience? The real thing with friends? Not so much.

Will it enhance the shopping experience and friend time? You betcha. Those who get that will win.

All of my two cents!

Ralph Jacobson
5 years 7 months ago

As the technology gets better, and more of the five human senses are touched by brands online, the move to online shopping will continue to accelerate. Remember “SmelliVision”?! Some things were ahead of their time! All this said, I also believe that physical stores will always have a place in our lives. We all do need to touch real stuff every once in a while!

Shep Hyken
5 years 7 months ago

The more reality you can put into what used to be a two dimensional experience, the better. It used to be that the cool technology was to be able to view an item from different angles. Now you can virtually try it on? Cool stuff. And when it’s perfected, it will make a difference. By the way, it will also make a difference for the in-store experience. People will be able to get a sense of what something looks like before they say, “let me try it on for size.”

Kai Clarke
5 years 7 months ago

This is still a far reaching dream. Like 3-D TV, it is a product looking for a problem. Consumers are not buying things because they need to see them in 3-D, instead they are purchasing things online, along with the full guarantees and customer satisfaction that is the mainstay of retailing.

Jason Goldberg
5 years 7 months ago

Virtual reality will absolutely transform e-commerce and digital pre-shopping. Today we have all sorts of in-store experiences: The immersive feeling a child gets the first time they walk into FAO Schwartz, the imagined ownership (endowment effect) when we sit in the driver’s seat of a luxury vehicle at the car dealership, or the anticipation we get for an upcoming event when we try on that cocktail dress at the department store. All of these experiences will be triggered at home via virtual reality.

It will also be true that a much larger percentage of the things we buy will be personalized/made-to-order, and so simply won’t be available to preview in a physical store. We’ll need VR even in-store to visualize such products, such as the Lowe’s Holoroom.


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