COVID-19 disruptions have made it necessary for businesses to change how they connect with customers virtually and meet new demands for eCommerce. During the pandemic, 60% of consumers say they’ve been online shopping more than before, and 73% say they will probably continue to shop online after the pandemic ends*.
So while online shopping is here to stay, what customers expect from an online shopping experience is likely to evolve. Thirty percent of millennial and Generation Z consumers say they want more VR/AR experiences incorporated in their online shopping experiences, compared to only 14% of older generations such as Generation X and baby boomers (full research available to clients).
In order to bring those online shopping experiences to life, there are a variety of ways that businesses are using immersive technology to simulate an in-store experience with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).
Before we explore the different ways that businesses can use this technology to create immersive experiences for their customers, it’s important to understand the difference between VR and AR. Virtual reality creates a 3D environment users can “walk” through. For example, a user puts on a VR headset, transforming a living room into a live concert or a completely different world.
Augmented reality creates a layer of 3D, interactive elements that can layer on top of different environments. For example, when a user wants to know how a couch will look in their room and they use an app to put a 3D model of the couch right in their living room, that’s augmented reality.
It’s also common for VR and AR to be combined for a mixed reality experience. Let’s take a look at three different ways small businesses can use both VR and AR technology to improve the online shopping experience.
With eCommerce software, physical shelves and racks are replaced with structured grids featuring photos of products. While this might make it easier for customers to search for a specific item, it doesn’t replace the feeling of walking through a store and seeing all the products lined up.
VR can transport customers to a store where they can browse a store from their home and tour all of its different offerings. With a VR headset, this experience becomes even more lifelike, making the user feel as though they’re there in person.
In late 2020, the Brushwood Center, a public arts nonprofit outside of Chicago, aimed to launch their first art exhibition since the COVID-19 outbreak. This exhibit features a collaboration between artist and environmental advocate Arica Hilton and conductor Vladimir Kulenovic. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the art center needed to find a way to make the event entirely virtual and quickly.
As a result, they decided to create a 360-degree VR experience of the exhibition available for free until January 31, 2021. This VR-powered experience allows users to “walk” through the gallery, look at paintings, and then click on icons to see a video or read more information about the painting.
Users can also opt to listen to the compositions that accompany the event. It can be accessed using any device that connects to the internet or a VR headset.
“[It] includes walking through the gallery and hearing music and the artist voicing over descriptions and stories of each work,” said Allison Ordman, media relations specialist. “Attendance is free, but all works are for sale.”
This new technology enables the Brushwood Center to stay afloat and continue sharing art with others while also supporting artists by showcasing and selling their work.
A customer shopping in a store can see the dimensions of a product such as furniture or paintings. They’ll likely know if it's too big or too small for what they want, and they’ll also be able to determine whether or not the color is the desired shade. Looking at a photo of the product online rather than the physical product itself can make this trickier.
VR and AR helps customers visualize a product or service in context. For example, they can see what a couch would look like in their living room or what a painting would look like on their home office’s wall.
So while shopping online can make it difficult for customers to understand details about your products, AR technology can fill in this gap.
Hamworthy Heating, a British commercial boiler manufacturer, hasn’t been able to let people into its showroom since the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the world into quarantine. Its leaders needed to figure out a way to give people access to its boilers, as well as heating and hot water products—products that are complex and not transported easily.
As a result, Hamworthy Heating consulted with EPM Digital, a digital agency, to create an AR app. Using the app, you can place proportional 3D models of Hamworthy Heating’s boilers in a room to determine the product’s size and get to know its features.
“Bringing the product into the customer’s own setting lets them ‘try before they buy’ and builds trust in the product, so they can compare models and assess their usability,” said Carrie Mok, content marketing editor at EPM Digital.
Hamworthy Heating’s AR app brings their showroom to their customers, allowing people to interact with Hamworthy’s products and become more informed before investing in a commercial boiler.
Separately, VR and AR can improve different aspects of the online shopping experience. Combined, they can offer a completely immersive experience.
VR can transport customers to a new environment, and AR can let customers interact with elements in the digitized space. For example, a business that combines VR and AR might transform the customers’ bedroom into the inside of one of their stores and then use AR to create elements that customers can interact with or customize.
Combined AR and VR allows customers to become better acquainted with your products and services. Additionally, a mixed reality experience can help customers understand what to expect from your services and prevent miscommunications or customer dissatisfaction.
Dan Bailey, president of WikiLawn Los Angeles Lawn Care, works with landscaping and lawn care businesses that use VR to help the client visualize the end result before the business buys the materials and puts in the work.
For example, if a lawn care business is doing landscaping work for a university, the business makes a model of the campus and includes models for flowers, bushes, trees, and edging details.
“The client can walk through the property and get a look at the intended result from all angles,” Bailey said. “I think this kind of tech can only help the industry as it allows the provider and client to come to a better consensus on what should be done.”
The combination of VR and AR allows the business and customer to better communicate expectations, which ultimately leads to greater customer satisfaction and prevents the risk of wasted time and materials in case the business has to redo the job.
Like most emerging technologies, VR and AR can seem intimidating and unattainable for mainstream adoption.
However, there are affordable, effective ways small businesses can take advantage of mixed reality technology and provide customers with a more immersive shopping experience.
Just like software can help you manage your eCommerce needs, it can also help you manage your company's virtual reality experience and get you started in creating 3D, immersive experiences.
VR is the future, and software can help. Check out a list of top VR software platforms to get started.