Let's take a look at the cutting edge of retail and where similar souls may be able to find therapy for their retail affliction….
Internet retailing gains momentum
Although accounting for only a small share of total retail sales, internet retailing continues to be the most dynamic channel within South Africa's retailing market. This can be attributed to improving infrastructure, declining costs, a high rate of mobile penetration and the availability of more payment options. In an effort to align operations with evolving consumer trends, retailers continue to invest in their online presence. Leading players within South Africa's retailing market have adopted multichannel approaches in an effort to supplement bricks and mortar sales with online stores. The growing number of internet retailers specialising in various fast-moving consumer goods also indicates the growing significance of this channel.
The merging of the physical and digital worlds is a key trend for retailers, and virtual reality is sitting at the center.
Virtual reality ? Huh ? Look, my 11 year old son's a gamer so I get dragged to shopping hell for the latest and greatest in gaming paraphernalia. The exertion of pester power is unbearable, so more often than not the credit card gets swiped to buy my way out before I get sucked deeper into a retail abyss. But what has shopping got to do with gaming? They're worlds apart… or maybe not!
Virtual reality, the panoramic technology with roots in gaming, is being adapted for retail consumers within the next year, aiming to pair the ease of e-commerce with the thrill of real-life shopping.
While no retailers have yet announced a virtual storefront, developers are experimenting with experiences that shoppers could enter with devices such as Google Cardboard, Facebook Oculus Rift, or a Samsung Gear VR headset.
Using a Samsung Gear VR headset with the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 phone, viewers can walk around a store and fix their gaze on hotspots. They then can hear a description through headphones placed over the headset, see the cost, and explore different angles. A tap of the headset adds the product to a virtual shopping cart.
This 360-degree frontier, while still futuristic, could mean a lot of things for both retailers and consumers as the technology becomes incorporated both in-store and online. For now, retail's virtual reality applications are in the prototype phase, but the many possibilities are still expanding, according to Valerie Carlson, of SapientNitro.
"The way we're approaching brands' problems with virtual reality is how we approach them with anything else," said Carlson. "We ask them where they're headed, what their goals are, and what their vision is. The thing with virtual reality is that the solutions feel limitless."
While virtual reality headsets work their way into retail stores, here are a few ways it can help brands improve the consumer experience.
Test and learn
Before virtual reality, retailers had to bring in focus groups or take customers on "shop-alongs" to find out what was working for them while in store. With virtual reality, stores can instead host pop-ups or events with the goal of gaining valuable feedback from guests equipped with a VR headset. Every time they take a step, turn their eyes or reach for a product in virtual reality, the retailer will learn more about their real-life in-store experience; that feedback can then be adopted for a smarter omni-channel strategy.
"Connecting the dots across channels can become critical to the business," said Carlson. "Virtual reality can make it a consistently branded experience, in-store, online and on mobile."
Sean Cosier, head of digital innovation at Mekanism, worries that for now, it's too soon for the average consumer to experience and provide feedback on a store in virtual reality.
"It's hard to put on a headset and know where you're going," said Cosier. “The average person is more likely to be taken on a journey rather than be in control. But if the retailer took them through the aisles and followed their eye movement, that's where it’s helpful."
Product demonstrations Virtual reality can also help the customer make the best-educated decision when shopping in-store by providing a contextual experience.
Amir Rubin, CEO of virtual reality tech firm Sixense, gave the example of shopping at an outdoor equipment store. VR can bring you to a tent on the side of a mountain or in the desert. You can then, as you're immersed in the virtual experience, get a sense of what you need, what you want, and how you'd use it. Finally, you can purchase those products in-store and be on your way, more confident in your decision.
"It's the best of brick-and-mortar combined with e-commerce," said Rubin. "The accessibility and mobility of e-commerce, paired with trying and feeling the goods in a store, becomes very helpful."
Stores can use virtual reality to do more than improve in-store strategy and drive sales through immersion. According to Carlson, the experience itself - at least, while virtual reality is still a new commodity - can attract consumers into the store to "experience the brand."
Even if retailers using virtual reality aren't pushing a particular sale, the appeal lies in the ability to immerse customers in that new experience.
"These virtual reality headsets aren't something that everyone has in their house, so it's about drawing people into the store. Virtual reality, beyond selling the product, can actually show the behind-the-scenes process, tell a story around the retailer's craftsmanship and give a demonstration about the process itself before purchase."
V-commerce connects the consumer to the brand and the products on an emotional level.
Heck, imagine parking off on your couch, gazing into a virtual reality headset and being transported to the bustle of Manhattan, or Hamleys, or Harrods - or maybe just the Checkers down the road! No traffic, no parking bay scuffles, no stress - sit back, relax and enjoy retail heaven.
Early next year, virtual reality will become more widely available when Oculus releases its consumer Rift headset that can be used for multiple virtual reality experiences including shopping. But it will cost up to $1,500 for the device and a computer that can run it. Sony Corp will also launch its Morpheus headset.
Virtual reality will have to offer an experience over and above what shoppers can do within a physical store or on an e-commerce website. Think about it, with more devices available, friends near and far could go "shopping" together in a virtual world, creating a more immersive social experience within the digital realm.
Sure people are still going to want to physically buy something in a store, but virtual reality is the experience where they can envisage (the item), and use it more as a planning tool than a purchasing tool. Retail will have to change, and virtual reality is a big part of it.
Seeing is believing
The Rift uses state of the art displays and optics designed specifically for VR. Its high refresh rate and low-persistence display work together with its custom optics system to provide incredible visual fidelity and a wide field of view. The goggles are packed with an extra-wide field of view, accelerometer, gyroscope and even a compass to track the position of your head and sync it to the content you are looking at. As you move your head around, the 3D image moves with you. It literally puts you in the centre of a virtual world.
The magic of presence
The Rift's advanced display technology gives you the feeling that you're actually there. The magic of presence changes everything. You’ve never experienced immersion like this.