How augmented & virtual reality is changing break brick-and-mortar retail

8th Aug 2016

virtual reality

When Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, was asked to predict the future of social media, his third and final prediction focused specifically on augmented reality. “The future of computing is augmented reality: distraction-free, heads-up communication,” he said.

Zuckerberg was talking about social media but the retail sector should certainly take note. Many are divided about the impact augmented reality and virtual reality will have on brick and mortar retail. Scaremongers love to talk about the death of the high street. Optimists on the other hand are relishing the endless possibilities offered by combining the high street with the digital world.

One thing is for certain; augmented and virtual reality will have a huge effect on the retail industry. A recent survey found 55% of consumers think virtual-reality applications will influence their buying decisions in some way.

The difference between augmented and virtual reality

Virtual reality and augmented reality are similar but shouldn’t be confused. Virtual reality completely immerses the user in an artificial world. Augmented reality on the other hand, splices both the real and virtual world together.

We’ve been given a taster of the potential of augmented reality with the recent launch of Pokemon Go; but the possibilities don’t stop there.

In the 2014, IKEA introduced an augmented reality app that allowed customers to view how IKEA furniture would look in their homes. This solved a common headache for shoppers and allowed them to really see if a piece of furniture suited their homes without having to go to the hassle of buying and transporting it first.

Meanwhile, UK high street fashion retailer Topshop used virtual reality to bring their storefront alive. For the 2014 London Fashion Week, Topshop, in collaboration with technology agency Inition, created a complete virtual reality world of the Topshop Unique show. It allowed fans to get a front row seat at London Fashion Week when in reality they were sitting in the shop window of the company’s flagship Oxford Street store.

Not only did Topshop produce a really unique experience and a great marketing campaign, they intrigued people on the street enough to stop and look at the spectacle as they walked past.

The high street isn’t dead, but it does need to change

So why are retailers worried? In theory, virtual reality combined with e-commerce could allow consumers to have the full shopping experience without having to set foot inside a store. Take Converse for example. The shoe manufacturer launched an augmented reality app, ‘The Sampler’ in 2010. The app combined the virtual world and the real world to let consumers see how converse trainers would look on their feet without having to actually try them on.

If retailers can’t offer consumers something different, they’ll happily use e-commerce and augmented reality to forego a trip to the shops. Online sales are expected to rise by 16.7% this year whilst brick and mortar shopping is expected to fall by 4.3%. Brick and mortar retailers will need to adapt in order to survive.

Rather than accepting defeat, smart retailers will do well to follow Topshop and Converse’s examples, using virtual reality to improve the experience of shopping (which is why most consumers “go shopping” in the first place).

Expect to see much more augmented and virtual reality as high streets embrace experiential retail

Consumers know they can get most products online cheaper and easier. This is precisely why physical shopping needs to shift from a transactional environment to an experiential one.

Virtual and augmented reality will be key in giving stores the edge in experiential retail.

AT&T, the American multinational telecommunications conglomerate has already made this part of their marketing philosophy. In February 2016 they launched a virtual reality campaign that allowed visitors to their stores to experience a holiday cruise. Collaborating with Samsung who designed the virtual reality technology and cruise company Carnival Corporation they sent a clear message to their customers: AT&T are cutting edge.

Brian Shay, president of retail sales and distribution for AT&T makes the case for virtual reality on the high street perfectly: “Our customers know they can come to an AT&T store to experience the future of a connected life”.

At OCS Retail Support we recently talked about how the physical storefront still has a lot to offer the consumers. If brick and mortar retailers embrace change, they can build a connection with shoppers that e-commerce just can’t.

Topshop and AT&T prove that retailers can use virtual and augmented reality to bring the shop front alive. If more brick and mortar retailers utilise these technological advancements, the high street will not only survive, but thrive.