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How will virtual reality change e-commerce?


Published on: May 1, 2022


The metaverse is almost here: a digital world where we can communicate, explore, and even shop in virtual reality. But what does that mean for e-commerce in practical terms?

For some retailers, virtual reality and augmented reality are already part of how they do business. For others, it still sounds strange and futuristic.

Let’s take a look at some VR pioneers in e-commerce… and discuss the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Different kinds of reality

Before you strap on a headset and a pair of haptic gloves, let’s review the basics. There are several different things that people can mean when they’re talking about virtual reality.

  • True virtual reality (VR) means a fully simulated, artificial experience, such as immersive video games and training simulators.
  • Augmented reality (AR) adds a digital overlay to the real world. For example, an augmented reality feed might give you more information about your surroundings, or show a virtual object in your real physical space.
  • The metaverse is virtual reality’s big idea. It’s a (mostly theoretical) network of virtual realities, all linked together, where people can meet and interact. It’s been described as “a 3D sequel to the Internet”.

All these new realities have a part to play in e-commerce retail. In fact, the shift has already started.

Retailers are increasingly focused on an omnichannel strategy which connects online and offline shopping. Virtual reality can help to bridge the gap, whether that’s by opening up new digital spaces or bringing digital features into the physical world.

So far, so sci-fi. What does shopping with virtual reality actually look like?

How e-commerce retailers use virtual reality

Most retailers who are interested in these innovations have started with augmented reality. Mixing digital and physical worlds means that customers can try on clothes, test out make-up, and even see how furniture would fit into their home.

But AR and VR don’t just exist to enhance the physical world. We’ve also seen retailers sell products which are specifically designed to be digital only. Balenciaga tapped into the popularity of online game Fortnite by releasing part of a new fashion line as in-game outfits. And Gucci now sells sneakers that only exist online.

The next step is creating virtual reality stores, where customers can browse, test products, and make purchases in a completely digital environment. This kind of e-commerce is still in its infancy, which means there’s a lot of interesting experimentation happening – such as virtual stores which use NFTs as click-and-collect receipts.

You might have noticed that most of the brands we’ve mentioned are famous luxury labels. So far, virtual reality has mostly been the preserve of major legacy brands. And a lot of predictions about the metaverse focus on high-value items, status symbols, and digital investments.

So the real question is: will virtual reality work for most retailers? Will it change the face of e-commerce, or stay on the fringes of technology?

What’s next for virtual reality?

Whenever a new technology emerges, people talk about waiting for the “killer app”. They’re looking for the idea which will mean that everyone needs the tech. What will the killer app for VR be?

Predictions range from a more sociable shopping experience, to haptic feedback from online stores, to augmented reality touchscreens on the high street. Most of these predictions assume that people will still shop for physical goods in the metaverse. Fantasy trainers might look cute, but the majority of retailers will focus on real-world goods and services.

The biggest obstacle for customers right now is hardware. Not everyone can afford the headset, controls, and other complex gear that enables VR experiences. It’s a prohibitively expensive way to shop compared to current online stores.

Since most people now access the internet via mobile phone, we expect the VR breakthrough to come from mobile apps. Augmented reality filters and lenses are currently the front line of virtual reality in e-commerce – and they can be accessed without any extra hardware or expense. Whether they remain the most popular strategy for e-commerce, or whether another VR innovation takes over, shopping on mobile phones will probably continue to grow.

Whatever the killer app turns out to be, it will still rely on physical infrastructure. You might offer storefronts and customer service in virtual reality – but supply chains and delivery systems remain in the real world. As e-commerce expands into the metaverse, it will rely on operations experience management that bridges the gap between digital and physical realities.

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