A Tech Makeover for Your Store

July 2017—

Virtual Technology is Changing the Brick-and-Mortar Experience

Today’s shoppers are better informed, digitally aware, and in search of ways to merge the online into everyday reality. Terms like virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality (more on these later), are driving retailers to make in-store and online changes to keep up with the new demands in consumer shopping behaviors and expectations.

In a February report published by YouGov, 17.9 percent of consumers already conduct virtual reality activities when shopping online. Brick-and-mortar retail is changing and virtual technology is leading the charge. Industries like automotive and luxury goods already embrace interactive visual modeling for online product displays, custom designs, and consumer engagement.

It’s no surprise that companies are taking notice and marketing methods are shifting to adapt to this boom in virtual technology demand. Where once the virtual experiences were considered only for gamers or those willing to drop serious cash on software tools, the new face of virtual is open to all individuals, affordable, and surprisingly life-like. It’s no longer a fad, but instead, the new norm. By 2019, eMarketer projects 49.2 million people in the United States will be using virtual reality and 54.4 million will engage with augmented reality technologies.

Opportunity knocks. Furniture industry answers.

Furniture and lifestyle ecommerce innovators Wayfair and Houzz have already started promoting their visual commerce solutions and augmented reality apps. They’re giving shoppers the tools to invest time and money into the decision-making and purchasing processes.

With most consumers valuing unique furniture and room designs, it’s essential for retailers to engage those shoppers with multi-dimensional, interactive visual technology. Immersing online shoppers with high-resolution and 3D imagery plays a significant role in fostering consumer commitment and seller success.

The e-learning blog, Sh!ft, explains that “90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual [and that] visuals are processed 60,000x faster in the brain than text”.

How does this affect you?

By nature, humans think in multi-dimensional forms and space. Even before computer and smartphone technology, we have been designing in three dimensions—think elementary school dioramas, playdough, and how about Sir Charles Wheatstone’s 1838 invention of the stereogram (no, not Instagram!).

The digital world of today looks a lot different and a lot more realistic than it ever has before. Software continues to elevate the visuals associated with 3D modeling and shoppers continue to expect it. “When consumers have the opportunity to see products from any angle, adjust style preferences, fabrics and finishes and then arrange those items into a room scene, it’s as if the retailer has brought the showroom right into that shoppers home,” explains John Thompson, Enterprise Sales Director at MicroD LLC. The virtual design experience should be magical, fun, and profitable.

Say what?!

Up until now, you’ve been reading about visual experiences, visual commerce, and virtual design, but it’s time to talk semantics. What do all these phrases and terms really mean? Here’s a quick vocabulary lesson:

Virtual Reality (VR)
is a digital environment which allows a user to interact within that space as if actually present. In regards to furniture, a virtual reality setting is created by the user or interior designer through 3D room planning software to replicate a shopper’s home or to imagine a new space completely—hello HGTV design shows. When applied to furniture models, virtual reality allows the shopper to spin, rotate and inspect the merchandise from every angle and viewpoint, as if in-person.

Augmented Reality (AR) is an extension of VR and blends the computerized environment with the physical environment (Pokémon Go ring a bell?). In the case of furniture, shoppers use the camera on a mobile device to snap pictures of their physical space and then drop virtual items into that space. A room scene will contain 3D furniture models that can be swapped out, customized, and repositioned without breaking a sweat.

Mixed Reality (MR) is exactly how it sounds. In mixed reality, multiple platforms are brought together into one digitally complex environment. The combination of platforms allows users to bring in other items like product data, virtual walls, and videos. A shopper can be looking at a photo of their room scene, but layered over top, also watching a video of how to assemble their furniture or an animation of the pieces expanding to show features and components.

Getting in the game

There’s a good chance retailers with a design-centered business have already started to enhance shoppers’ virtual experiences through 2D room planners or product configuration tools. Moving towards a VR, AR, and MR environment simply takes the willingness of retailers to find the right service provider, update their room planning software, and share their opinions with manufacturers.

Most virtual technology solutions are turnkey with plug-and-play catalogs; however, catalogs are only as good as the photography provided by manufacturers. By expressing the desire to go virtual, retailers can guide manufacturers to render 3D product models for their digital catalogs.

Ask the Magic 8 Ball

After consulting the Magic 8 Ball app—yes, this is a thing, the virtual technology predictions sound truly amazing!

3D Printing: This printing trend is growing and the idea of creating and assembling custom furniture with a mouse-click or screen tap may not be that unheard of. More developments on this are sure to happen.

Virtual Accessories: Headsets, glasses, and wands have been present in VR applications since the technology began, primarily in the gaming community, but these accessories are now entering the virtual commerce arena. “Virtual accessories allow shoppers to design 3D room plans and arrange virtual furniture, then use the wearables to ‘walk’ through that space for an immersive experience,” says Ron Gordon, Senior Vice President of Technology at MicroD. As accessories prices drop, expect immersive virtual commerce to rise.

Haptics: The science of touch is going digital. Imagine giving consumers the ability to touch and feel the furniture they are looking to purchase. Haptics applies computerized tactile sensations by using a glove or other device (maybe yet to be invented?) to allow shoppers an even more realistic and immersive experience.

The pro/pro list

If you’ve made it through the article this far, great job. Information overload and futuristic whiz-bang tools can be hard to conceptualize on paper. Visual technology, whether you embrace it now or later is happening and it’s already affecting how shoppers shop and retailers sell.

The perks of visual technology are significant—don’t believe me?

Check out the pro/pro list below:

Benefits of visual technology for retailers:

  • Stay relevant with online shoppers
  • Fun + more engaging interactive experiences
  • Users stay on websites longer
  • Enhances search engine optimization
  • Ensures more confident buyers
  • Decreases product returns due to style, scale, or fabric “mistakes”
  • Fosters consumer loyalty
  • Helps increase average purchase tickets
  • Promotes a quicker sales cycle

That’s a wrap

As you consider the direction your retail business will take in the next few years regarding visual technology and visual commerce, remember your in-store and online showrooms are extensions of each other and exist to service your customers in the most comprehensive way possible.

Integrating tools and solutions that are engaging, exciting, and immersive, shows that you can adapt to the changes in consumer behavior, understand the new shopping experience, and plan to thrive in the digital environment. Maybe it’s time for me to throw on my virtual accessories and take a mixed reality walk through your virtual brick-and-mortar.

About the Author

Hayley Leocha
Hayley Leocha has spent more than 10 years in the furniture industry working with retailers and manufacturers to overcome their digital challenges. She can be reached at hayleyleocha@microdinc.com.