A couple of weeks back we contributed to a Times’ special report on Virtual Reality, discussing the impact mobile has had on the shopping experience and speculating on whether VR could do the same. For us, at least in the high street context, the two can’t be compared. Mobile has seamlessly merged into our every waking hour - no matter how bleeding edge your tech adoption it’s unlikely you expect VR to do the same.
Shopping is a behaviour we grow up with and we bring a set of expectations to the experience every time we do it. But these expectations mould and change as new behaviours emerge. Uber, for example, transforms our experience of taking a cab and suddenly we can’t remember a world without it.
The reason mobile has had such a big impact in the shopping experience stems from exactly this. From wishlists to pricematching, searching for stock or sourcing public opinions on a product, it has enhanced experience and convenience and set new expectations. That’s why when we’re in a store these days our mobile is frequently in hand.
You might assume Virtual Reality to be in a similarly interesting place as the most immersive physical-digital experience yet available to us. But, it’s still an interaction that comes with large doses of friction, not to mention a disorientating headset as a mandatory.
We expect VR in retail to remain an ‘event’, rather than a behaviour. An enticement to shop in the physical location, VR has the power to enrich the experiential dimension of the shop. In some categories, where the product doesn’t present itself quite as readily for sensory interaction as those iPads lined up in an Apple Store, VR can enrich the sensory in the consideration process.
Thomas Cook, for example, has invested in VR experiences using Samsung’s Gear VR technology. These include a simulation of a Manhattan helicopter experience that’s increased excursion revenues for their New York packages by 190%.
A lighter touch is evident from Virgin Holidays, who have been using Google Cardboard in their stores for the last couple of years. If a customer can be brought closer to experiencing their destination, the belief is that this will ease conversion. The use of Google's lo-tech VR solution is particularly interesting here as it potentially allows for the customer to bring that experience home with them and share it with other parties involved in the purchase decision.
But will all this result in the kind of impact to in-store shopping behaviour we’ve seen from mobile? Give it some thought the next time a shopper bumps into you while staring down at the device glowing in their hand. As Andrew Sullivan observes in his damning appraisal of our digitally mediated lives:
Observe yourself in line for coffee, or in a quick work break, or driving, or even just going to the bathroom. Visit an airport and see the sea of craned necks and dead eyes. We have gone from looking up and around to constantly looking down.
Whether or not you share his opinion that we've lost something of ourselves in this evolution, you're forced to agree that mobile is unique in having this level of impact on our behaviour. Sullivan references 2015 research that found young adults using their phones five hours a day, at 85 separate times for interactions often less than 30 seconds.
This is the key distinction between VR and mobile. We'll leave you to gaze into your own crystal balls (the Google app?) as to whether we'll remain of this opinion in a few years' time.