When Virtual Reality (VR) is mentioned games are the first thing that come to mind for most people. But VR can and will do a lot more than just games. This series is about some of the non-gaming uses for VR that currently exist and that may exist in the near future. Today, we are looking at shopping in VR.

People already love shopping online. Web based retailers like Amazon are surpassing Walmart in valuation and eCommerce sales are estimated to be $414 billion by 2018. Online shopping is great for the sort of things you would have bought from a catalogue in the olden days, but what about when you want to actually see something before you buy it? And not just a picture, but a virtual representation with proper dimensions, perhaps in lighting similar to what you would see in a store or at home where the item will be used? This is where VR stands to shine.

Virtual reality is a tech that allows the user to be digitally transported to another place and interact with people and objects in that place almost as if they were really there and when used properly this could be a real boon to retailers. The CEO of YouVisit, a company that creates VR content for hundreds of brands, has said that “that interactivity leads to immersion, and that immersion leads to conversion.” And a report by Ericsson on consumer trends in 2016 shows that half of smartphone users are interested in VR shopping and would like a 3D virtual selfie that can be used to try on outfits when shopping online. Sixty-four percent said that they would like the ability to see an items actual size and form when shopping online. It seems that people are ready to embrace VR shopping if it can be done well.

Alibaba, the Chinese online shopping juggernaut, is testing out a new virtual reality shopping app called BUY+. With it users can shop in over seventy different e-stores, paying for the items using Alipay, Alibaba’s mobile payment app that already has half a billion users. In fact, they plan to make it so that so that shoppers will not even have to remove their headsets to complete their payments if they have an AliPay account.

In May of 2016, eBay Australia and Myer, released what they claim is the first Virtual Reality department store. Rather than a fully realized virtual rendering of a store, it’s more like a mind graph with items it has learned you are interested in based on previous shopping experiences sorted into categories which takes the place of departments in a brick and mortar department store. The app was powered by your cellphone and an eBay branded Google Cardboard which they dubbed “shopticles”, though any Cardboard compatible headset would work and the YouTube trailer for the service showed people using it in the Gear VR as well, though no official Gear VR app was released.

Thomas Cook Travel Agencies decided to see how VR would work for them by commissioning VR studio Visualise to create several 360 VR films for them. These videos were set up as five minute mini vacations in their UK, Germany and Belgium flaship stores. They dubbed the experiences “Try Before You Fly” and they found a jaw-dropping 190% increase in people booking holidays after trying it in VR.

IKEA likes to stay on the forefront of tech having previously used one of their catalogues as a marker for a smartphone or smartpad based augmented reality app that allowed you to place virtual furniture in your real living space (viewable only on the device, of course.) With the HTC Vive they have gone further, creating an app that allows you to customize a virtal kitchen that you can actually walk around in, open the drawers, pull items out of them and so on. While it is still just an experiment and far from replacing the massive IKEA outlets in major cities, it does give a cool example of how shopping in the future could be done.

When the technology improves VR could become even more appealing to brands and stores because no longer will physical space need to be a constraint or a cost. And when a physical location is required it could be much smaller without the requirement to display all the items they want to sell on shelves. Instead shoppers could don a VR headset and enter a virtual store with an infinite number of rows or levels showing off as much as the vendor desires without having to pay increased rent or utilities. What space they do have could be dedicated to stock with a small front area for customer service. Stores could be tailored to the user. For example, do you want to walk around a bookshop like you would normally or would you prefer being able to scroll through only those that interest you while sitting on a couch in the woods or on the beach? Certainly people smarter than I will be able to come up with other ways to use VR for shopping that will make shopping more convenient and enjoyable for the customer and more profitable for the vendor.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yAuiXhJPnr8- eBay and Myer VR Department Store