Many virtual tours involve the use of a 360-degree camera or a regular camera and fisheye lens to capture a physical space. The images are then stitched and patched together to create a environment. Users can then walk through the space, moving by simple clicks or gestures, exploring the space at their leisure, accessing further information and experiences within the virtual environment as they go.
Perhaps the most well-known applications of these virtual tours is in the Real Estate industry, where agents are finding a virtual reality tour a highly useful tool for marketing property. However, the Retail sector, including grocery, can experience huge benefits, in terms of both ROI and customer sentiment, from the use of this technology.
Virtual reality allows retailers to try out and to test store layouts, shelving, concepts, decor, and marketing materials. Currently, retailers can spend sometimes huge amounts of money on research and development projects and in-store testing. With mobile virtual reality, however, vastly more customer traction can be gained than would be possible within the physical in-store environment which in turn can save a lot of money.
One of the key examples of the use of virtual tours in ecommerce and retail comes from China, specifically Alibaba’s Singles Day, which takes place in November every year. In 2017, the event generated $25bn in sales for the e-commerce giant, aided in no small part by the Buy+ phenomenon that was rolled out the previous year. Buy+ is powered by a simple Google Cardboard headset, and offers an “interactive shopping experience” wherein users can tour a real-world store, focus on an item they’d like to purchase, and simply nod their head to add to shopping cart.
The Buy+ platform is an example of a readily-available innovation for retailers that can add an engaging new channel for user experience. Additional text, image, and video integration can be placed into the tour, which a brand can use to show promotions or deals, adverts, or just fun little elements to engage shoppers in new ways.
The example from Alibaba leads us into the potential for more sophisticated virtual shopping systems for grocery shopping. A straightforward virtual tour-style experience can be integrated right into a grocery store’s website, so that users can choose to tour a virtual supermarket and add their favourite products to their trolley from their mobile or desktop without the need of a VR headset.
It is possible to integrate machine learning algorithms into virtual reality shopping in order to tailor each customer’s experience to their individual needs and desires. Returning, logged-in customers will be presented with the products that they are most likely to purchase, which the algorithm will ascertain from data gathered from the customer’s previous shopping trips; true omnichannel marketing. For supermarkets and stores that offer a card-based loyalty scheme, data can be carried across from in store to online experience, in the same way that many supermarkets use now, but with the additional channel of a VR supermarket shop to choose from.
Retailers have been using VR in market research for the last few years, allowing retailers to test store and shelving layouts and product placement options before enacting a real-world refurb: a significant cost-saving measure from in person testing and research.
Another key benefit in digitising research is the ability to combine qualitative research with Eye-tracking in virtual reality. Accurate results can be presented in real-time with heat and route mapping to show how viewers have interacted with the content and to gain insight into where customers’ attention is drawn when perusing a shelf, how long they spend looking at certain products compared to others, and which ones they select to view more information on.
“It is crucial for us to involve users in product and service design and evaluation,” says Simone Benedetto, UX researcher at TSW, a market research lab based in Italy. “This doesn’t mean just to ask them their opinion, but to collect objective data coming from their eyes and brain while interacting with the product or service.”
This helps the retailer to ascertain the most desirable shelf placements are for particular items, which shelves offer the best ROI, and the best places for signs and other promotional materials throughout the store.
VR could solve one of the biggest problems that supermarkets experience with their online shopping offering, the death of the ‘impulse buy’. People usually shop online using lists, which they stick to. They can see what they’re spending and consult their budget appropriately. There are few distractions to lead them from their path, and internet stores there’s far less opportunity to tempt the shopper visually the way physical stores do. But in VR, they can, in an engaging way that makes the experience exciting and alluring. For example, adding interactive content to the experience. In virtual reality, a shopper will not just see the supermarket fish counter, but experience additional video content showing them, perhaps, how to fillet a fish, or simply a recipe using the ‘Catch of the Day’. These interactive elements can be combined with special offers and promotions, stimulating the re-uptake of the ‘impulse buy’ whilst making the experience of shopping enjoyable, unique, and informative.
Once we introduce artificial intelligence algorithms which will place items that are relevant to the customer in the right place in the VR store at the right time, the virtual supermarket starts to look like a powerful proposition.
The jury is out as to whether virtual reality supermarkets will be a hit with customers, or whether it is augmented reality to lend a hand for in-store shopping that will prove most successful. Behind the scenes, as grocery retailers continuously aim to optimise the in-store shopping experience and maximise spend across the store, VR technology, along with machine learning and eye-tracking, are proving powerful assistants.
VR adoption within the home is growing, By 2025, it’s estimated that VR will be a $25bn market, with indications that most homes will be hooked up before long. As such, it’s easy to imagine that many of the experiences and chores we conduct via our laptops and smartphones may migrate to the more immersive virtual environment in parallel with this increased adoption. There is little reason why our supermarket shop won’t follow suit.