Over the past year, shoppers who may have previously been reluctant to shop online have been pulled into a primarily digital shopping experience, ushering in the next generation of retail technology.
But once COVID-19 subsides and things return to normal, you won’t necessarily see these technological advancements going back into the retailer’s bag of tricks.
Take for example mixed reality technology.
Gartner suggests that while mixed reality technology has been a nice-to-have for retailers in the past, “newly realized benefits due to COVID-19 will accelerate adoption in retail.” (Full report available to clients)
Incorporating mixed reality in your retail store isn’t just a good way to enable contactless interactions, it can also improve the overall shopping experience for your customers. In fact, a recent GetApp survey shows that almost 20% of customers who had a mediocre contactless retail experience recently thought that businesses could improve that experience by offering technology such as augmented reality (methodology below).
Of course, a small, independent thrift shop probably doesn’t have the resources or the need to invest in a set of high-end VR headsets just to train a handful of part-time employees. Still, retailers of all sizes are looking for creative ways to grow sales should be aware of this emerging tech, and in this article, we’ll provide guidance on what is worth investing in now versus what can wait.
A retail immersive experience includes technology such as virtual reality and augmented reality (collectively known as mixed reality) to create an enhanced shopping experience for customers, and allows retail operators greater control and flexibility in the management of their retail space.
Potential applications for retailers include associate training, inventory optimization, and intelligent virtual store design.
Let’s take a closer look at each.
In the wake of COVID-19, getting face time with new hires has increasingly moved toward an online experience. While that works fine with largely virtual teams, how do you teach a new hire how to navigate the layout of your store and locate items over a Zoom call?
Mixed reality is a great solution.
In fact, Walmart has already used VR training to prepare employees for high-stress events such as Black Friday. This trains them to do everything from monitoring produce sections and cleaning up spills to identifying shoplifters.
Walmart VR training (Source)
While the initial investment in virtual reality training may seem like a barrier, the technology is highly scalable (headsets can be reused by multiple generations of employees), and training programs can be centralized and shared across many locations.
Virtual training can even help your associates better implement an immersive experience for your customers. By training with the headsets and tablets used in mixed reality environments, they will be better prepared to help your customers use those same technologies.
Should you buy in? You may be understandably hesitant to scrap your established employee training program for a fully virtual program. But this doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing proposition. If you run a smaller business with limited resources, you can test the waters by investing in an entry level VR headset (several commercial grade headsets sell for less than $500) and experiment with it. At the very least, you and your employees will have a chance to become more comfortable with this emerging tech for a relatively low investment.
You want to offer a wide selection of products to your customers, but you don’t want to crowd your limited retail space with loads of inventory. Mixed reality is the solution to this problem.
For example, say a customer comes into your home appliance store wanting to see a washing machine with a stainless steel finish, but your only display model is in white. Mixed reality technology might allow that customer to put on a headset and interact with the washing machine complete with a virtual stainless steel finish. It might also allow them to virtually place the appliance in the laundry room at their home to see how much space it would take up and how it would fit with the rest of their decor.
Or, imagine a cosmetics store where customers can virtually try on makeup with a mixed reality mirror, then have the product shipped to their home if they like the way it looks.
Should you buy in? If inventory optimization isn’t an issue for you now—say you have a manageable product selection or you use drop shipping—augmented reality is probably overkill. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t consider it for your business. Check with your vendors to see if they have an existing app that you can share with your customers for free. For example, PPG Paints has a free online room visualizer that allows customers to virtually paint a room using augmented reality without having to open a can of paint.
You may have creative ideas for your store layout, but those ideas might lose steam when the prospect of moving 300-pound shelving displays around comes into reality.
Virtual store design combines the best of both worlds, letting you visualize different layouts before doing any heavy lifting.
In addition to helping you visualize a new store layout without having to actually move installations around, intelligent virtual store design can even suggest new layouts based on artificial intelligence.
For example, intelligent virtual store design (IVSD) technology can generate an optimal store layout to help a customer entering your store see all of the most high value displays at once, rather than having some eye-catching items hidden behind others. IVSD can also be particularly useful in ensuring that your store is set up to allow for proper social distancing.
Intelligent Virtual Store Design in action (Source)
In the wake of COVID-19, retail space will need to be more adaptable for multiple uses and seasonal realignment to give customers a reason to go out in public rather than shop online from home, which has become the norm. IVSD could even be applied to help customers take a virtual walkthrough of your store before coming in to physically shop.
Should you buy in? IVSD is typically used by higher-end retailers with many locations and frequently rotating layouts, and it’s probably unnecessary for smaller retailers with a consistent store layout. Retailers that are already using computer-aided store design can explore mixed reality options by talking to their software vendors, but those who are not yet using software to help with store layouts can benefit from basic floor plan software at a much lower cost.
Taking the leap to developing an immersive experience using mixed reality in your retail space can be daunting and exciting, but there are lots of software options to help you on your way, including established software to aid retailers that you may have missed.
The benefits of mixed reality tech are real. But if after reading this article you still feel as though mixed reality is a little too far-fetched for your business, there are plenty of other sales-boosting methods you can employ without having to over-invest in futuristic technology.
Customer loyalty programs keep your best customers coming back to you through rewards, discounts, exclusive offers, and more.
Customer insights use data analytics to identify buyer trends that can help you sell more products.
eCommerce tools can help you open your store to a much larger audience, increasing your customer base—and sales—exponentially.
To browse top products with these features, check out our Category Leaders for Retail Management, featuring 12 top retail management platforms based on unbiased data and authentic user reviews.
The GetApp Contactless Customer Experience Survey was conducted in September 2020 among 968 adult consumers in the U.S to understand how customers have adapted to contactless services in the wake of COVID-19. To ensure participants fully understood the meaning and topic at hand, we defined the term “contactless” in the survey questionnaire.
Note: The applications mentioned in this article are examples to show a feature in context and are not intended as endorsements or recommendations. They have been obtained from sources believed to be reliable at the time of publication.