As brick-and-mortar retailers continue to experiment with technology to lure shoppers back into stores, two of the coolest—and most promising—innovations they’re using are augmented and virtual reality. However, much like VHS vs BetaMax, iOS vs Android, or almond butter vs peanut butter, there seems to be some debate in the community over which will eventually win favor with customers. Will consumers opt for donning headsets and jumping into a virtual world? Will they prefer a more supplementary experience? Or can both exist?
We take a look at the major arguments.
The Case for VR
There’s no doubt that VR offers a more transformative experience to the consumer. Take, for instance, Lowe’s recently launched VR experiment, the Holoroom. Upon realizing that one of the biggest impediments to home improvement shopping is a lack of consumer confidence in their abilities to, say, tile a bathroom, the company piloted a VR program to give customers the ability to practice DIY projects in-store.
The benefits are numerous. The immersive nature of VR allows consumers to freely practice their skills without fear of expense or causing significant damage to their homes, and for Lowes, the VR program means that they can do away with the limitations of in-store clinics taught by employees (scheduling classes, needing a trained professional, etc.).
It also lends itself to improvement. Lowes can monitor how customers interact with the program—where they get stuck, where they excel—and make adjustments to the program overnight.
"Virtual reality just happens to be the best way to give people what they want, when they want it," says Kyle Nel, the director of Lowe's Innovation Labs. "This is meant to be available to the entire country [United States] and Canada, not just those on the bleeding, cutting edge of tech."
As to the drawbacks, the Harvard Business Review believes it may be awhile before consumers are fully comfortable of the idea of wearing headsets. In the article Virtual and Augmented Reality Will Reshape Retail, they write, “VR is more exciting, but right now it faces a higher barrier. That’s because consumers aren’t yet accustomed to wearing VR devices (even at home) or to doing anything with it beyond playing games.”
It’s an important point. For most consumers, virtual reality is almost synonymous with gaming. In the case of Lowe’s Holoroom, will consumers believe that they can actually learn valuable, transferable skills virtually? Or will they dismiss it as a neat—but ultimately nevertheless worthwhile—gimmick?
The Case for AR
Augmented reality, on the other hand, is already to a huge hit with consumers, as evidenced by the runaway success of Pokémon Go. But then again, that too is an example of the technology as it relates to gaming, and therefore does not necessarily predicate success in retail.
Still, there have been numerous examples of augmented reality already resonating with retail customers.
Sephora’s Virtual Artist allows makeup shoppers to try on “thousands of eye shadow shades, new expert looks, and [use] an expanded library of virtual tutorials” to find an ideal makeup before buying. IKEA created an AR catalog app to help customers see how certain pieces of furniture would fit in their homes. Converse created the Converse Sampler app in 2014, where a customer can select any shoe and point the phone towards their foot to see how it will look.
And that’s just a small sampling of AR in use. Far more retailers have embraced the technology than VR. But that said, the most popular uses of AR are all some variation of “try it before you buy.” The makeup, the shoes, the home décor. Helpful? Yes. Innovative? Maybe not.
Right now, AR seems to be the safer bet. Consumers can use their smartphones to interact, and the “try it before you buy it” aspect of the technology seems to be beneficial. However, should VR shed its gaming image, the technology appears poised to offer a far greater consumer experience, which could ultimately help bring more customers in-store.