As an ecommerce merchant, you have a lot of things going for you: having a website means your store is open 24/7, and so shoppers can buy from you from the comfort of their own homes. Plus, if you’re an online pure play, you don’t have to deal with things like physical store permits, leasing, and maintenance.As an ecommerce merchant, you have a lot of things going for you: having a website means your store is open 24/7, and so shoppers can buy from you from the comfort of their own homes. Plus, if you’re an online pure play, you don’t have to deal with things like physical store permits, leasing, and maintenance.
But running an online store does come with some drawbacks. Unlike at brick-and-mortar shops, your customers can’t physically touch your merchandise, and this can be a barrier to conversion. It’s also harder to provide immersive shopping experiences, so it’s all too easy for shoppers to get distracted. They could navigate away from your site with a click of a button.
It’s no wonder ecommerce has a much lower conversion rate compared to brick-and-mortar.
So, how can you address these issues? One way is to implement virtual reality technology.
What is virtual reality (VR)?
VR lets you create computer-generated environments that envelop users, so they feel like they’re in a different world or reality. VR typically requires certain hardware to work, though some virtual reality initiatives can be experienced using a smartphone or computer.
“True” VR involves creating fully immersive environments that people can interact with. The elements in these VR “worlds” move and react depending on the actions of the user. Examples would be an immersive flight simulator or a virtual reality game that can be controlled by the user.
Other forms of VR technology can still transport users to different worlds, but they lack the full immersion described above. Pre-made 360-degree videos are a perfect example of this. These videos don’t react to the user’s movements, and the viewing experience is limited to what the camera has already recorded.
In this guide, we’ll share insights and examples of both forms of virtual reality. You’ll learn about how different ecommerce merchants are using VR, and you’ll discover the steps you can take to implement virtual reality in your business.
Let’s dive in.
The roles of virtual reality in ecommerce
While virtual reality is most prominent in gaming and entertainment, companies in the retail and ecommerce realms are also getting in on the fun — and for good reason. Virtual reality can make ecommerce more fun and immersive, even bridging the “touch-feel gap” that people experience when shopping online.
Here are some of the ways that ecommerce merchants can use VR in their businesses.
Using VR to aid the shopping experience
While VR can never replace real-world shopping, it can provide the next best thing. Thanks to virtual reality, shoppers can browse an online store by looking around instead of clicking on links. They can “explore” an ecommerce site and be completely immersed in the experience that distractions are almost non-existent. And the best part? They can do it from virtually anywhere.
eBay and Myer’s virtual reality department store
One example of a store that leverages VR to enhance the shopping experience is this virtual reality department store by eBay and Myer. The two companies teamed up to create a store that enables shoppers to browse thousands of products using VR headsets.
When you enter the store, you’ll be presented with various shopping categories, and you can select departments or products simply by looking at them. The store uses “eBay Sight Search,” a feature that allows you to select items by holding your gaze for a few seconds. The shop also uses an algorithm that shows items based on the products you viewed, so you get personalized recommendations.
Consumers can browse the store using a headset such as Samsung’s Gear VR. eBay and Myer also gave away 20,000 free VR devices called “shopticals” to give people access to the virtual department store.
Shopify’s Thread Studio
In addition to an immersive shopping experience, VR can give people a 360-degree view of products and allow them to look at the items from multiple angles — just like in real life. In some cases, VR can even help people build and customize items before creating the actual products.
Check out what Shopify is doing with its VR application, Thread Studio. The app “transports you into a virtual photo studio where you can upload designs and lay them out on mannequins wearing American Apparel shirts.”
What’s great about Thread Studio is that it goes beyond simply overlaying a custom design on a 2D T-shirt photo (like what most ecommerce sites are doing); instead, it uses actual body proportions, so the shirt you see in the app will be much closer to how it will appear in real life.
What’s more, Thread Studio enables you view and showcase your T-shirt designs using posable mannequins, so you can see how a shirt would look like from different angles and poses. Once you’re happy with your shirt, Thread Studio can save print-ready files and send them to Printful for production and fulfillment.
Using VR to educate, engage, and generate buzz
VR’s doesn’t just give people a new way to shop. It also helps brands engage and entertain customers in ways that traditional marketing or advertising can’t. Consider these examples:
Immersive makeup tutorial by NARS Cosmetics
In 2016, NARS Cosmetics teamed up with Facebook 360 Video to create a VR makeup tutorial that allowed viewers to control which specific portions of the video to focus on.
So instead of skipping to the portion of the video they want to see (or watching through the whole thing), users can just look around or “drag” the video to find the part they want to watch.
See it for yourself below.
Virtual giving trip by TOMS
TOMS is another great example of a retailer using VR for engagement and education. The shoe company created a “virtual giving trip” that took viewers to Peru where they can see the kids benefiting from TOMS’ charitable efforts. This enabled TOMS to highlight their initiatives in an entirely new and effective way.
So far we’ve talked about the benefits of virtual reality and its applications in the world of ecommerce and retail. In this section, we’ll discuss the specific steps involved in implementing VR. If you’re thinking about starting virtual reality initiatives in your business, these are the action steps you need to take.
Determine your goals and the experience you want to provide
Implementing VR takes a huge amount of work (not to mention a sizeable financial investment) so having a definite vision is key. Who’s your target audience? What do you want to achieve with VR? What type of experience do you want people to have?
Be specific. Having a detailed plan and concrete goals will make the implementation process easier and less confusing.
As Di Dang, senior UX designer at POP put it, “VR is such a massive experience shift for both businesses and users, that it’s too easy to rat hole on the possibilities.”
According to her, goals should be defined right from the start, and those objectives should serve as your north star for the program. Dang adds that your goals don’t necessarily have to come in the form of quantifiable metrics (e.g., conversion rate) they “can be a softer goal like you want to understand how VR helps customers envision their purchases in real-life.”
Whatever the case, make sure you have a solid idea of what you want to achieve. Communicate your vision and goals to your team, and let those objectives guide you throughout your initiative.
Decide how you’ll make it happen (and who will help you do it)
What comes after goal-setting? Mapping out your course of action. At this stage, you’ll be making important on decisions on the people and technologies that will turn your VR vision into reality.
Let’s break down some of these factors below:
VR technology is critical to your entire program. To get this right, you need to go back the experience you want to provide (remember that clear vision?) and then figure out the technologies you need to make it happen.
For instance, will users be passive spectators in this reality, or do want to give them the ability to walk around and manipulate different elements? If it’s the former, then you’ll need a VR platform that can support three degrees of freedom (3DoF). The latter, on the hand, would require a more robust VR system — one that can support positional tracking and six degrees of freedom (6DoF).
When it comes to VR, things can get technical very quickly. Unless you have an in-house team of virtual reality experts, you’ll have to outsource the development of your program to an external studio or third party developer. Read on to get pointers on finding the best people for your VR initiatives.
The first thing to consider when hiring a VR developer? Their experience. Just like when you’re looking at applicants for any other job, you’ll want to look into the previous accomplishments of the candidates. What projects have they handled? Who have they worked with?
In other words, “look for someone who’s done it before,” says Thomas Drach, a partner and designer at Motel, a digital product agency. “There is a great deal of excitement in VR at the moment. You want to look for someone with a proven track record and past projects, not just interest in the area and the willingness to take on a project.”
Annie Eaton, CEO and Co-founder of Futurus, says you should ensure that the skills and experience of your developers fit your specific objectives.
“Businesses need to look for virtual and augmented reality developers who have experience with large, enterprise projects and who have the skills to create a virtual environment. There are quite a few out there right now, and most of us know each other. It depends on the goals and scope of the project to find the right fit.”
Eaton also recommends broadening your horizons and thinking beyond traditional hiring standards. “I would encourage any retailer who is looking to develop an ecommerce platform for virtual reality to widen their lens and think bigger than what they know. To create a virtual reality environment takes a different kind of developer rather than your typical app or web dev. It takes a visual programmer — a hybrid between a designer and a coder.”
Don’t forget the hardware that your VR initiative would need. This typically hinges on how you’ll want to deliver you experience.
According to Dang, “If you’re looking to engage customers, say, in-store, then room-scale hardware like the HTC Vive or Microsoft HoloLens are best suited to on-site installations for high-touch engagements.”
“If you’re looking to engage a mass audience, then lowering the barrier to entry… I’d recommend mobile devices, like the Google Cardboard/Daydream, Samsung GearVR, or phone-based AR apps.”
Develop, test, implement, and iterate
Next, comes developing, testing and implementing your VR initiative. The specifics of these steps will, of course, depend on your project. But like with most technologies, this will likely involve developing a prototype, and then ironing out the kinks before testing the program with a small market. From there, you can further refine the program to improve it for a wider rollout.
VR testing processes will vary from one program to the next, but generally, you’ll want to test both the technical functionality and user experience. Run your VR program on various devices to see how your virtual world comes to life on different platforms. Are all the elements working correctly? Do they coincide with the user’s movements? These are just some of the things to keep an eye on.
Then there’s the user experience. Aside from usability (e.g., Is the interface intuitive? How easy is it to navigate?), you should pay attention to the effects that the program has on the individual. When implemented incorrectly, VR can be uncomfortable, jarring, or even nauseating. Be sure to monitor for such issues so that you can minimize motion sickness, fatigue, or any other form of discomfort.
Market your VR initiatives
As you develop and test your program, you’ll want to cook up creative marketing strategies to get the word out. Here are some ideas.
Give away devices – VR headsets aren’t as ubiquitous as say, smartphones, so you could run into some challenges if your target users don’t have access to the right device. Address this by giving away headsets to your audience.
Remember, this is what eBay and Myer did to promote their virtual department store. They gave away 20,000 “shopticals,” and this encouraged consumers to try out the experience.
Don’t just market the technology — make it about the experience – Speaking of which, the user experience should be a central part of your program. Yes, the technology itself is great, but don’t get stuck marketing the “cool factor” of your VR initiative.
A big focus of your marketing should be on the experience. What feelings will the initiative evoke in the user? How will you invigorate their senses? How will your VR solution make shopping more fun or convenient? See to it that your marketing messages can answer these questions.
Get people to share their VR experience – Encourage people to talk up your program through social media. Create a unique hashtag for your initiative, and then remind users to spread the word.
eBay did this with its virtual department store. The e-tailer used the hashtag #ebayVR (so simple and direct!) to get people to share their experiences on social media.
Data-gathering is a major step in any VR initiative. Collecting information about how users are engaging with your program will not only give you feedback on how you can enhance it, but you will gain valuable customer information that can be used to improve your sales, marketing, and support strategies.
What data points should you track? That depends. If you’re enabling people to shop in a virtual store, then it may be helpful to monitor things like the products customers tried on and the places or departments they explored.
If the user is taking on the role spectator — say you’re letting them watch a virtual fashion show — then you’ll want measure metrics such as brand lift, social media conversations, as well as sales attributable to the virtual show.
Whatever the case, determine the right metrics for your program and get tracking.
Your turn: what’s your take on VR and ecommerce?
There can certainly be a business a case for investing in virtual reality if you work in ecommerce. When implemented the right way, VR technology can provide novel and memorable experiences that can set your brand apart from the competition. In some cases, VR can even bridge the touch-feel gap that many online shoppers feel.
Planning to give VR a try? Start with a strong vision. Get clarity on what you’d like to achieve, recognize the technologies that can make your vision happen, then recruit developers who can turn it into a reality.
And don’t forget: virtual reality should be more about experiences than technology. No matter what type of VR campaign you have, make sure it offers value and gives users an experience they won’t find anywhere else.
Now we’d like to hear from you: what’s your take on VR and ecommerce? Let us know in the comments.