Experts predict virtual reality (VR) will revolutionize a range of industries, from gaming to at home entertainment–and leading ecommerce players are keen to get their piece of the pie. According to a Reinventing Retail 2015 report, 35% of consumers stated they would shop more online if they were able to try on a product virtually and 63% said they expect it to impact their shopping experience in the future.

With a range of affordable VR headsets such as the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR on the market, experts predict the new tech will change the way that consumers interact and engage with products, making the whole experience more realistic and comparable to an ‘in-store’ experience at home.

The prospect of being able to interact with products online is undoubtedly cool. But, does it really improve the online shopping experience overall or is it just a fad? And should ecommerce platforms start investing in the inevitable VR revolution now or risk finding themselves left in the dust in the near future?

Outlining the perfect ecommerce experience

There are more than 200M digital shoppers in the U.S., according to recent surveys, and three quarters of adults already shop online. Although studies suggest that 94% of shopping still takes place ‘in store’, ecommerce sales are rapidly growing in popularity and are predicted to increase annually by 17%, reaching $414 billion by 2018 in the U.S.

The recipe for a smooth ecommerce customer experience can involve a number of steps: discovery, trial, purchase, delivery and return. Failure to exceed expectations in any step of the process can quickly cause people to lose faith and go running back to their local store or to a competitor’s website. Online purchases are notoriously prone to abandonment, with 67.45% of online shopping carts left without a sale.

Consumers expect convenience, easy and cheap shipping, flexible returns, and a selection that they wouldn’t find in-store. Successful ecommerce businesses to this day have leveraged these expectations of consumers and attempted to provide an online experience that is visually appealing and risk-free as shopping in store, but there have been obvious challenges.

To date, pressure points have included the inability to try on items or try out different colors and sizes. This is often exacerbated by the fact that colors and styles don’t always appear exactly as pictured online. Shipping back unwanted items can also become a hassle and sometimes even costly and troublesome for the customer. Ensuring fast and efficient shipping and returns is of paramount importance to the customer, but also for ecommerce platforms themselves as they have a direct effect on costs and profit.

What can VR really bring to the table?

Experts are predicting that VR will “grow new markets and cannibalize existing ones.” However, the long term success of VR powered ecommerce will be defined by platforms’ abilities to improve upon the in-store experience, and make it easier to browse products and make purchases from the comfort of a person’s phone or computer. The wow factor of using VR Goggles for the first time will not be a sustainable hook in the long term.

In fact, 30% of surveyed customers stated that they prefer shopping in-store, because they are able to see and feel the item from different angles and ask for instant advice. The most obvious ‘hook’ of VR is to give consumers the benefits they love about shopping at home without the usual side effects — items arriving that don’t fit or look quite right and having to deal with the hassle of returns or haggling over return policies.

While a VR ecommerce experience is unlikely to offer potential customers the chance to ‘try on’ or feel items in the virtual world any time soon, the technology is advanced enough to allow users to view, sort between, and change items — in terms of size and color — in a realistic manner. These functions could easily be integrated into the VR experience. A number of existing startups are already tackling the clothing fit problem, offering users the means of inputting their exact measurements, which are then used to create an avatar that can try on different sizes.

Regarding instant customer support, platforms could embed ‘shop assistant’ avatars to converse with potential consumers in a natural manner. These could be utilized by human customer service teams, or powered by AI chatbots to deal with common queries and pass the customer on to a human representative when necessary. Using VR avatars would enable customers to ask questions about products both parties can see and get advice and recommendations on matching items, colors, and even sizes.

For many, shopping in-store is a social activity. People tend to have more confidence in their buying decisions if they are affirmed by someone else. If VR environments allowed multiple users to interact with one another in the VR store, people could “go shopping” together from different locations, which would further incentivize people to shop remotely. Considering ‘multiplayer’ environments are extremely popular in gaming, it can only be assumed that this will be made possible in VR too.

The opportunities offered by ‘shared’ VR ecommerce experience are endless. If you were a business equipping a new facility, or a decorator working on interior design for a home, you would be able to go and virtually furnish the space, and demonstrate potential changes to clients.

Will the scale, accuracy, speed, and security of the technology, combined with strong user interest, make all of this happen? We don’t really know, but it’s exciting to watch.

All of these factors are dependent on the level of commitment and investment shown by the powerful players in ecommerce. While ecommerce stores struggle to replicate the in-store experience, VR can provide an experience that is so similar to shopping in person that it can offer consumers the best of both worlds. VR systems might be expensive to implement and maintain yet could potentially draw in customers who previously avoided ecommerce in favor of shopping in physical stores – ultimately justifying the cost.

Potential problems
As VR is such a new frontier, we are left with many speculations until the technology matures. In a recent Pollfish survey, 47% of participants in the US and 35% in the UK said they had seen a VR presentation in-store, but the real test will be when the technology finally becomes a common ‘at-home’ item. The public is positive about the future of VR, with more than 50% polled in the U.S and the U.K. predicting VR headsets will become a common household item within the next two years. However, many experts argue otherwise, suggesting it will take between 3 and 5 years for VR to become mainstream.

Shopping from a computer or smartphone offers its own advantages – the ability to research and quickly scan through many products at a time, organize and edit items in cart, and so forth. Assuming that companies are able to leverage VR for the product discovery experience, how would that integrate into the overall ecommerce experience?

Will the VR headset augment online shopping while still requiring a computer or mobile device to finalize transactions or will developers create experiences that can capture the entire process virtually – including the checkout and payment? At the end of the day, customers want to save time and currently VR only allows users to look at each item individually, making it slower than shopping in-store. Not to mention, consumers will still have to wait for delivery.

While consumers are undoubtedly excited about the prospect of VR, only 37% of Pollfish contestants in the U.S and 30% in the UK thought that VR would change the way they bought goods online.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently stated, “I believe virtual reality is another large computer platform. Many people will experience it for the first time using their phones.”

However, the average wifi and mobile internet speed are not fast enough to support a VR experience, sitting at around 12.5 Mbps in the U.S. While Zuckerberg is not wrong about much in the tech world, we will probably have to wait a couple of years before wifi and mobile internet speeds improve to the extent that a mobile VR ecommerce experience will be possible.

Predictions

Whatever way you look at it, developing VR ecommerce will be a huge expense. It is for this reason that we will probably only see the biggest, best funded industry leaders jump in with both feet from the outset.

To adopt VR just to improve the product discovery experience comes at a cost that is too high for smaller players, and not yet worth the investment considering that there are not many active VR users or ‘at-home’ owners of VR technology at present. Smaller players would gain more from working with the giants and leveraging partnerships that get them the best of what the new technology has to offer without absorbing all the risk and cost.

The future is still uncertain for VR ecommerce. Mobile commerce has grown, but the majority of customers still seem to strongly prefer shopping from their computer. The biggest paradigm shift will come if the big players like Amazon, Ebay, and AliBaba heavily invest in the technology, applying their expertise and resources to making VR shopping as good or better than what their customers have come to expect.

Ecommerce companies serious about adopting VR technology will have to invest a great deal of money and patience before they can start reaping the benefits. It will take a while before millions of more consumers start using it and the technology becomes mainstream.

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