The role of VR in the future of ecommerce

Posted by Jake Hughes on 20 Apr, 2021
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We're on the cusp of something big. Learn how virtual reality is about to create a new era of ecommerce and what this means for consumers and retailers.

Virtual reality.

As the Internet of Things (IoT) continues innovating with new technologies it creates new ways in which people can interact with cyberspace. The ecommerce industry is a huge driver of this type of innovation because of the financial incentives behind creating the perfect online shopping experience.

Virtual reality (VR) has been around for some time. However, we are on the brink of it going mainstream and becoming part of our everyday lives.

So what will the future of online shopping actually look like if this technology takes over?

Why is VR such a big deal for the ecommerce industry?

The ecommerce industry has been growing at high speeds for almost a decade and this process has been accelerated by the global pandemic. Put simply, the huge growth is largely due to faster internet speeds and better logistics that allow for next-day delivery guarantees.

However, ecommerce is not perfect, and in fact, nearly 70% of online shoppers still abandon their orders. All ecommerce businesses are in constant pursuit of new technologies, marketing techniques, and ways of working that will help reduce that figure. VR is one of the new technologies that ecommerce brands are planning to use to help fuel future growth and convert more visitors into customers.

But, why is everybody so excited about VR?

Well, VR allows the two very separate worlds to come together for a whole new shopping experience that is completely immersive. It improves the customer’s experience by combining the benefits of online shopping with the advantages of brick-and-mortar stores.

You will still be able to shop from the comfort of your own home and have things delivered at lightning speeds. However, with VR, shoppers will no longer have to miss out on the elements that make shopping at physical retail stores great. Like the ability to walk around the shop with friends or the act of trying on clothes to see how they look before you buy.

It will be hard to resist a shopping experience where you feel like you’ve been to the mall with your friends, but you haven’t had to stand in a queue or sit in traffic, right?

How will we be able to shop online with VR in the future?

The VR take-over only works if most people own a VR mobile device that will give them access to the virtual worlds that are currently being developed. The fact that there are already 171 million VR users globally, with a market that’s expected to grow to $209.2 billion by 2022, suggests that it won’t be long before many households will have a least one VR mobile device.

At present, if you want to access a virtual reality of some kind you need to download a game or app from an online VR store such as Steam and make sure it’s compatible with whatever VR headset you own.

However, as the technology evolves it will be able to provide VR experiences directly from web browsers. Websites will be able to automatically connect with VR devices and allow visitors to switch from regular web pages into virtual reality worlds on demand. This will make it much more accessible and lower the barrier to entry - possibly to the point where even your grandparents can plug into the matrix without any issues.  

This development changes VR from being a product into a service. It’s what VR can offer as a service that makes it such a great tool for online retailers to boost sales and improve the customer’s shopping experience.

Let’s take a look at exactly how this will change how we shop online.

1. Walk around virtual stores

Video from IKEA.com

Virtual stores will allow online shoppers to slip on a VR headset and enter a retail environment that’s almost identical to a physical store. You will be able to walk around and browse products just like you would in real life. However, the difference is that you haven’t had to leave home.

You might be thinking but yeah, it will never look as good as real life and that most VR worlds are somewhat grainy and look cartoonish. Well, several companies are in an arms race to develop the most advanced virtual reality headset. It’s rumored that Apple is working on a mixed reality device that will feature two high-resolution 8K displays and eye-detecting cameras that will accurately map the edges and dimensions of a room. So, the quality of the picture will be greater than any TV on the market today, which is a real game-changer.

2. Visualize products in real settings and on lifelike avatars

We’ve all been there when something we’ve ordered online arrives and it’s not what we expected. It might be much smaller than you thought, the wrong color, or the wrong fit. It’s a frustrating experience and only happens with online shopping because you have to rely on product images and descriptions.

However, when shopping at a virtual store, you will be able to look at products in real-life settings to help with scale, or dress avatars that look just like you.

For example, you could walk around a virtually generated kitchen to get a sense of what the space feels like before you have it installed. Or you can dress up an avatar that matches your exact dimensions to see how items of clothing fit and look on your body.

This will go a long way in helping people to be sure that a product is right for them when buying online.

3. Feel the texture and shape of products with haptic hardware

Haptic technology.

Something else that makes going to a physical store more attractive for some people is the tactile nature of shopping. Being able to squeeze, pick up and flip a product to get a proper look at it gives shoppers the confidence to buy. At the moment this element is missing from online shopping.

However, with the development of haptic hardware, already commonly used in areas such as medicine, industry and gaming, this is soon to be a thing of the past.

Haptic technology refers to hardware that creates a sense of touch through vibrations, forces, resistance, and motions. It’s a technology that allows computers to communicate kinaesthetically, creating the ability for VR users to touch, feel and manipulate 3D objects.

So, when haptic hardware is combined with mixed reality headsets, shoppers will be able to walk around a virtual store and pick up objects. Not only that, but they will be able to feel the shape, texture, and weight of a virtual product.

4. Shop with your friends virtually

VR shopping with friends.

Something online stores have struggled to compete with is the social aspect of shopping. Going to physical stores with your friends or family is a special event for many people and is a big part of modern human culture. You only have to look at the size of some shopping malls to realize how much value is placed on this pastime.

VR allows ecommerce businesses to replicate real shopping experiences by recreating the same social interactions you would have in a real store. You can walk around the VR store with your friends in real time, interact with 3D products, with each other, and ask a virtual member of staff if you need help with something.

5. VR shopping assistants will help you find the perfect product

Finally, you can expect to find VR shopping assistants in virtual ecommerce environments that have learned exactly how you like to shop. They will have access to data captured from previous online shopping sessions to provide you with a personalized shopping experience. They will be able to show you exactly the types of products you are likely to buy and give you advice on sizing or colors based on your body and preferences.

VR shopping assistants will humanize the online shopping experience by providing lifelike brand ambassadors that you can interact with. It will be like having your own personal assistant who is dedicated to finding you the right products and giving you advice on what to buy.

The competitive advantages created by VR in ecommerce means adoption is inevitable

There’s no doubt the universal aims of ecommerce brands can be met if VR becomes the norm for online shopping experiences. Immersive VR shopping has the potential to help reduce cart abandonment, improve customer retention, boost brand awareness, and ultimately drive more sales. This is because the benefits of both online shopping and physical stores are combined with VR shopping.

Online shoppers will be able to touch and try on products with their friends in virtual environments. They will have access to information like the weight, texture, shape, and fit of a product.  VR will make products sold online more tangible, thus reducing the knowledge gaps between a customer and a product that so often lead to shoppers abandoning orders.

Many people enjoy the physical experience of shopping, and this is unlikely to disappear completely any time soon. In addition, some people may find the AI interconnectedness too intrusive. However, as VR shopping becomes more mainstream many others will appreciate no longer having to queue, travel to the shops, or even wait for them to open.

VR allows ecommerce to bring the offline shopping experience online to create a whole new era for the industry. Ecommerce businesses that ignore VR risk being left behind as consumers gravitate towards businesses that simplify online shopping decisions and create an improved online shopping experience.

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