Lysa Campbell, CEO at Retail Marketing Group

Making retail sustainable by taking it virtual

Lysa Campbell, CEO at Retail Marketing Group explores how online retailers can look to maximise content and user interaction, enhanced by virtual reality.

The last year has seen retail take a big hit, with companies finding new and innovative ways to cater to consumer needs. The Internet has been the industry’s saving grace, keeping customers and retailers connected to survive through the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there has been many snags along the way and bumps in the road to figure out what works and what doesn’t in order to take retail virtual. Then, with the Prime Minister announcing the roadmap for exiting lockdown, the main question on everyone’s mind is: what does this mean for e-commerce and the high street and will virtual retail still be relevant?

Retail Going Virtual
It is no surprise that Amazon took to the ‘new normal’ like a duck to water during COVID-19, having the structure and business plan already in place for managing an increase in consumer demand and engagement. Competitors had to think outside of the box in order to stay relevant. This mainly revolved around the factors of retail that will never change; customers will always want low prices, fast delivery and a vast selection of products to buy from. It was just a matter of how quickly retailers could adapt technology to cater to these factors.

Some retailers looked to drone applications to increase delivery time, whilst others turned to e-commerce and offered hundreds of products. Ultimately, the aspect that must be a primary focus is how you offer value to your consumers. What has been made abundantly clear over the pandemic is that human connection is a highly valued commodity and has been greatly missed since the shutdown of the high street. People miss being able to speak to a retail assistant and ask for advice on the best products: something that can be hard to replicate in a virtual setting. This is where retail can take lessons from the events industry, one which also thrived off human interaction. After lockdown was enforced, the events industry too had to develop hybrid technology to emulate pre-COVID life, delivering immense value to their audience.

Massive leaps in innovation with technology have created a varied mix of virtual environments and platforms, which people can use for multiple purposes. Some aspects are already popular with retailers, with augmented reality and virtual reality starting to play a big role in many retailers’ campaigns. This is only projected to increase in the coming months; according to Goldman Sachs, the market for AR and VR in retail will reach $1.6 billion by 2025. Virtual reality in retail can be used to plan, design, research, and even enhance the customer experience. It offers several benefits when considering how to appeal to consumers’ wants and needs, especially when they’re constantly changing.

There are already many examples of retailers using hybrid methods to generate engagement with consumers. In 2017, IKEA developed the IKEA Place ARKit app, which allowed users a 3D preview of the chosen furniture in their own space. The users can look for their preferred furniture items, then reserve and buy directly through the app. Other examples of VR in retail include One Aldwych Hotel, who partnered with Dalmore Whisky to offer a unique brand experience where consumers could have a ‘VR whiskey cocktail’; the consumer would drink the cocktail while virtually visiting the distillery where the whisky was aged and see the barley fields that were used in the making of their drink.

The next phase in retail is for brands to provide virtual showrooms; indeed, this is something that some retailers are beginning to roll out to customers. Consumers can be in the comfort of their own homes and ask a real person specific questions about the product and be shown the product they are interested in. Solutions like these are also more sustainable going forwards, an aspect that is a huge focus for the retail industry.

Staying Sustainable
‘Going green’ means so much more than bamboo straws and refillable cups. GlobalData found that 64% of UK consumers say they consider the impacts on the environment in their choice of retailer. To make a retail experience truly sustainable, companies must alter the perception of what a retail experience should be and what consumers want to take away from it, then drastically reduce the need for travel, hospitality, and waste, all of which have a severe impact on the environment. This is twice as important for the retail industry as retailers must also think about providing a sustainable product and helping their consumers achieve a ‘green footprint’. Retailers must consider virtual and hybrid alternatives to the high street.

Virtual and hybrid environments are some of the most sustainable ways that companies can create meaningful engagement with consumers whilst helping minimise consumers’ environmental footprint. The retail industry as a whole generates a huge amount of waste and pollution, from the manufacturing and shipping of products to the use of landfill for unsold inventory. Whilst some retailers have made significant changes across their processes in order to minimise their impact on the environment, there is always more work that can be done. Providing hybrid or completely virtual shopping experiences reduces pressure on brick-and-mortar stores as significant contributing causes to retail’s environmental damage.

Virtual and hybrid solutions reduce the extensive supply chains needed to fill stores with products. Not only this, but they are also much more accessible to people around the world, giving businesses the ultimate flexibility in reaching every consumer.

The Future of the Retail Industry
Yet, there are the ever-present questions surrounding whether this will still matter in the coming months, as people start progressing back towards the high street due to the phased reopening of society. The simple answer is that virtual solutions are not designed to replace every aspect of the high street, instead combining the best of both worlds to create a unique, greener experience. Immersive virtual or hybrid stores provide the engagement of the physical brick and mortar stores with the versatility of digital, to create the next generation of retail. This should be the goal for any brand or retailer wanting to connect with its audience and deliver on their ROI.

In the end consumers want choice: they want brands to be on every touchpoint they are and offer others alongside it. Visualising products online – with an added element of personalisation and human contact – lets people fully engage and invest in your brand. People want to see what a product will look like in relation to quality and style before they spend their hard-earned money on it.

With over 63% of Internet users from Goldman Sachs suggesting that VR would change the way they shop, it seems the concept has a promising future in the world of retail. As brands look to regenerate the Highstreet post-COVID, we will begin to see the true potential of immersive virtual stores as they gain in popularity.

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