When Will VR Be Capable of Handling Real Commerce?

I have to confess that I don’t geek out over technology. When a new piece of tech comes onto the scene, it is not those first trade show demonstrations that I find the most exciting. It’s when I see it becoming a useful and common part of people’s lives, enabling them to do things they couldn’t do before. So when I recently had the chance to try out a virtual reality (VR) headset, I approached it with skepticism. At first, the experience reminded me of being at the eye doctor (and as a very nearsighted person, I’ve spent a fair bit of time with eye doctors), where you have to stick your head into an uncomfortable device that puts pressure on your skull.

Once it was on, though, I could see what a lot of the fuss was about. The demo experience was designed for a furniture company. Wearing a VR headset, I found myself not in a conference room, but a living room. I could choose different furniture pieces, sample color schemes, and view the room from multiple angles. I could very easily see how being able to visualize a physical environment could apply to all sorts of scenarios in industries such as healthcare and construction, but especially, in the near future, to retail.

VR provides a way for retailers to blend the physical and digital worlds via integration of virtual content with real commerce. For example, let’s say that you are fitted with a headset and designing your new room. Then imagine that once you have selected and approved the items you want—perhaps a sofa, lamp, and area rug—those items go into a virtual shopping cart and are delivered to your home shortly thereafter. In other words, you are able to make a purchase without leaving the context of the experience in which you are operating.

There is potential, and then there is the current reality. There are two key obstacles to VR-enabled content and commerce. The first obstacle is the devices. VR headsets are provided by just a handful of vendors. On the high ?end are devices such as Oculus’ Rift, HTC’s VIVE, and PlayStation’s VR, ranging from $399 to $699. On the lower end, retailing for under $100, are devices such as Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s Daydream. For all devices, adoption is mainly among gamers who use the headsets as peripherals that connect to their desktop computers. However, financial and intellectual investment is now pouring into VR, and competition between rival vendors is helping to fuel growth. IDC (International Data Corp.) estimates that the VR headset market was worth $1.6 billion in 2016, and it will reach $48.7 billion in 2021. This increased investment and competition indicate that price points will soon drop further and new improvements and innovation to headsets will rapidly appear in the marketplace.

The second and more formidable barrier is siloed channel management within retailers. Companies of all sizes are struggling to manage the two channels of online and in-store. Integrating the front ends of additional channels with legacy back-end processes is where trouble tends to begin. A global WCM vendor I spoke with recently was amazed to find that at an appliance retailer with thriving ecommerce and in-store channels, cashiers, and customer service employees was forced to grapple with a range of manual processes to add on warranties and installation information. But this instance of customer-facing employees adopting manual workarounds to solve integration problems unforeseen when the technology was initially purchased and implemented—often by project leads who had not sufficiently gathered internal requirements—is not uncommon. What’s more, manual and inefficient processes in the channel mean that adding more channels may slow things down, rather improve the pace of sales.

It’s always tempting to look at a new technology, especially one as cool as VR, and think that it could be the next big thing for your business. But there is still a long way to go between technology uses and technology adoption—and being able to capitalize on that adoption. Until more retailers are able to get better at adding additional channels, the potential for VR-enabled content and commerce will remain just that: potential. 

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