Virtual reality and the new sales experience

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How brands like Hasbro, Lowes and North Face are using the technology to transform everyday shopping

Window shopping could be about to change dramatically.

While it's one thing to explore a retailer's selection of items via online shopping, virtual reality brings the promise of exploring a retail space in an entirely different way. Trips to a furniture or even car showroom may never completely become things of the past, but they could be greatly condensed affairs, as potential buyers are able to winnow down their selections from home.

And for more day-to-day purchases, like food and clothes, virtual shopping may remove the need to leave the house at all.

"You can go into the store, but you can do it from the comfort of your own bed," says Victor Lee, senior vice president of digital marketing at Hasbro. "You can try [clothes] on. Want to go further? Take [an item] out of the box, and when you're done, drag it into this cart and you’ve bought it. And you didn’t have to put your hands on it. That’s what VR is going to do. It’s going to change retail."

The nation's retailers are getting ready, too. At the National Retail Federation's Big Show in January, SapientNitro demo'd a virtual shopping experience that transported people to a tastefully furnished SoHo apartment, where, if they focused their attention on a particular furniture piece, they could get pricing and other information, then add it to their cart with a tap.

It's part of a partnership with Sixense called vRetail, a platform that's industry agnostic and seeks to merge brick-and-mortar shopping with e-commerce. In another example, users of vRetail are placed in a women's shoe store with a wide variety of options to choose from. They can virtually "pick up" the shoe and examine it from all angles — and "toss" it onto a mannequin to see how it looks with a given outfit.

Lowes, meanwhile, has a slightly different approach in mind when it comes to virtual reality shopping. The company doesn't envision customers strolling the virtual aisles of a warehouse sized store looking for a wrench. Instead, it offers what it calls a "Holoroom" in 19 locations around the country. Visitors to these stores can take part in a VR experience that lets them design their dream bathroom or kitchen in a virtual space, then step into it and share with friends via a YouTube 360 video. And, since all of the products in that dream room are available at the store, customers can quickly order them to make their vision a reality.

"Home improvement can be complex, and we know customers are looking for solutions that help simplify the process and allow them to experience the end result during their decision-making process," said Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs when the concept was first unveiled.

There are even non-retailers exploring how best to combine shopping and virtual reality. Deal-finding service Retale was scheduled to release a VR companion to its app (which lets users browse store circulars) alongside the launch of Oculus Rift. [

The experience lets you locate nearby stores, including Target and JCPenney, and flip through their circulars, but adds a "take me to showroom" option, which showcases 3D renderings of products on sale in a virtual store. Buyers can stroll through the space, inspecting products of interest and learning more about them. Retale does not offer the ability to buy the items directly, but users can add them to a shopping list on the company's app, which will then guide them to the store.

For the most part, though, retail brands are currently using virtual reality to build awareness more than boost sales. Companies like The North Face say they are focused on emphasizing the lifestyle their brand represents. In the chain's Chicago, Manhattan and San Francisco stores, for instance, shoppers can strap on a headset and be transported to Yosemite National Park, where they will hike and rock climb.

"In our retail environment, you can get a sense as to what the sport is like and be in the film along with the athletes," says Eric Oliver, director of digital marketing at The North Face. "We just wanted to have the watcher participate in those sports … and get that gasp moment of staring over the edge."

One other advantage of VR? You can pull some pretty terrific stunt marketing with it by blending the virtual world and the real one, as The North Face did in Korea, letting shoppers for its new coat line experience a VR dogsled race and then immediately sending them on a real one through the shopping mall.

Will experiencing a cool virtual reality demo in store ultimately drive sales? It's still too early to tell, but Oliver believes it could nudge some fence-sitters.

"I think [virtual reality] is like social media in 2008," he says. "For us, I want our brand to be in your consideration set when you buy a jacket next time. I want to be in your consideration set because we're offering some entertainment at home. ... We want to elevate your experienced overall and virtual reality is one part of the way we're doing that."

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