Virtual Reality is finally coming of age. The magic point where technological progress meets cost affordability has brought with it an explosion of virtual – and augmented – reality experiences, uses and applications. So, where does this reality-enhancing revolution fit with in-store retail? We’ve examined the benefits, the future potential and the possible obstacles to uptake to answer the question: is VR an investment that will pay off in physical retail? Spoiler alert – the answer is yes. Let’s find out why.

Rewriting the rules

Goldman Sachs has forecast that the VR/AR retail market will be worth $1.6 billion by 2025”

The inescapable laws of physics – time, space, dimensions – while undeniably useful, are frankly a little limiting to us creative types. We can work within their boundaries to create beautiful, memorable experiences in a physical retail space – and have a great track record of doing just that – but sometimes we wish we could take consumers to a completely different dimension. The good news now is this is where virtual reality steps up. We can entice a customer into an immersive shop-in-shop, surround them with all the benefits of a brand, show them the products and then…whisk them away to a virtual space that transforms that physical experience into a fully interactive, extraordinary journey.

Legendary outdoor brand North Face demonstrated the potential for this approach a couple of years ago by adding a virtual reality tour of Yosemite National Park to 3 of its flagship US stores – transporting customers to the incredible landscape to see North Face products in action first hand. You could live the brand’s values of remote exploration while standing in a busy urban store in Fifth Avenue. Toms (the ethical shoe brand) put 100 Samsung Gear VR headsets into stores to take customers on a virtual trip to Peru to see how their buy a pair/donate a pair philosophy actually looks in the real world – an undoubtedly powerful sales technique.

Virtual vs Augmented

While much of the focus has been on virtual reality, augmented reality’s transformational potential – especially in retail – can’t be ignored. AR provides in some ways the most natural evolution of the in-store retail space by adding a virtual layer to existing physical objects. Want to show off your new line of products before they can shipped to stores? You could play a video or use an interactive display – both proven to be effective – or you could build an AR experience that ‘teleports’ the products virtually into the store, allowing customers to walk around them, understand their scale and even (in the case of LEGO) play with them without anything actually being there. That’s pretty powerful for retail; in an age where Millenials and Gen Z are buying into experiences over just buying things, being able to show them your new product in explorable 3D rather than just tell them about it will pay dividends.

Adidas upped the AR game last year with an ingenious use of the technology at ComplexCon in California. They placed AR points all around the convention centre, challenging visitors to find them, scan them and then actually see and unlock exclusive limited edition trainers floating in virtual reality through the lens of their smartphone – and buy them, right there and then.

The potential for customer engagement, conversion and increased sales is simply enormous with these applications. A retail display enhanced with AR technology offers us a glimpse into what may be commonplace in the near future, provided it’s used and delivered intuitively and accessibly. Here we must consider one of the big advantages of VR over AR – VR is much more easily controlled by the brand or retailer. The experience you deliver and the technology that’s used to deliver it are all up to you – AR relies far more heavily on users having a compatible phone or device, the patience and incentive to install an app and the ability to use it successfully.

So, why is it not everywhere already?

Virtual reality has definitely arrived in a meaningful way – but it’s still early days. The technology itself brings with it certain limitations, from headset portability to motion sickness. Its current usefulness depends very heavily on exactly how it’s used, and these are lessons often being learned in the wild by pioneering brands and early adopters who are willing to take the risk. Constant consumer testing and feedback is essential – an investment of this size needs to prove itself to be a genuinely experience-enhancing sales tool, not just a fad-ish novelty.

There is little doubt in our minds it does – and will – have an ongoing place in the in-store retail experience toolkit however. We’ve already shown how incredibly effective it can be on the client-facing side of a project – now it’s time to take consumers to new realities too.