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The future of shopping

eXtended Reality (XR) that includes AR and VR technologies have been silently disrupting the gaming industry for more than a decade. In the recent past, the tech has gained some traction in the education and training space. 

Today, however, COVID-19 with its mandates of social distancing and less to no physical interactions has accelerated adoption for XR. The tech is virtual, contactless, and delivers outstanding brand experiences - perfect for the new normal that multiple industries like retail will benefit from. To do that, the sector will first have to asses gaps that the new normal brings, and XR could service -

Five ways COVID-19 is changing human behavior 

Trust and confidence: People are low on trust these days. The fear mongering mixed amid COVID-19 news has become a daily challenge to deal with. According to Outlook India, a C-Voter nationwide survey indicates that the trust levels of Indians in regard to social media is very low. 

Self-policing: Studies have shown that one's behaviour in emergency situations depends on the individual’s perceived sense of security. And during the current pandemic, we are seeing unreasonable or unusual behaviour in response to what was once considered regular conduct.

Virtual-friendly: 2020 has been the start of everything virtual. People indulge in virtual workout sessions, meetings, conferences, coffee breaks, dating, gaming, ceremonies, and more. 

Companionship: While social distancing might stay, our social nature will require us to be more intentional about seeking and responding to companionship and emotional support. 

Freedom: The lockdown has morphed the meaning of freedom. People have to reimagine what freedom means within the framework of acceptable behaviour during and post the pandemic. 

How does ‘virtual vs. physical’ impact retail consumers and enterprises

When talking about consumers, let’s use the example of a store visit; XR is changing online shopping and making it an immersive and virtual experience. 360 degree store layouts allow consumers to explore and discover products at leisure, exactly as they would in the real world - if not enjoy a more empathetic and gamified experience.

VR shopping
source: pluspng.com
Imagine a shopping experience where one could tag family and friends and go on a communal and virtual shopping trip. While online shopping allows people to share their wishlists, immersive virtual shopping experiences definitely ups the ante. 

Add to this, the option of virtually bumping into social contacts who are shopping at the same place as you. Social alerts on their buys and a native chat application will bring us as close to the real deal as possible.

Customers can also choose to interact with store assistants. Such experiences can be designed as invested conversations with the brand. Consumers are also encouraged to make intelligent buying decisions with contextual product information like offers, reviews, sizes, colors, etc. Thoughtworks’ TellMeMore app tries to do just that - provide a better in-store product experience by overlaying information like book reviews, number of pages, and comparative prices beside the product (in this case; a book) view. 

Virtual positioning systems help build indoor positioning applications for large premises like shopping centers, airports, train stations, warehouses, factories, and more. In the case of a retail store, such a system will allow users to mark, locate, and navigate to specific items on virtual shelves.

Virtual trials could easily become the norm where customers try products from fashion to make-up to cars and even houses and hotel rooms at ease and in as much detail as they’d like. And, when this is a collective experience for customers’ friends and family or even their favorite influencers - the resulting emotional connect with the retail brand is long lasting.

Finally, adding tech like Haptics goes beyond the usual visual and hearing senses and introduces the sense of touch to customers’ shopping experiences.

For retail enterprises, one of the most obvious advantages of XR is stores being open 24/7 and 365 days a year. Enterprises also have the opportunity to personalize their VR store layouts to suit exactly what each of their customers wants to see and experience.

Instore customer journeys are difficult to track. With VR, enterprises will track who the customer is, where the individual spent the most time in the store, buying habits and history, favorite products, the influencers followed, and usual triggers to complete a purchase. 

The collected data, thanks to AI tech, can be processed real time for insights and used to influence the customer when in the store. Additionally, algorithms that determine ‘propensity to buy’ and ‘propensity for churn’ will be leveraged to help clients make quicker buying decisions. Retailers can give their customers proactive and personalized offers or discounts when they are in the VR store. As customers ‘walk’ through the store, such pop-ups will gain attention and push sales.

It’s common knowledge that customers, sometimes, defer buying decisions because of financial constraints. While most retail enterprises tie-up with financial institutions to alleviate this hesitance, the failure lies in leveraging that partnership at the right moment. With XR, retailers can integrate such financial support into the shopping experience. A customer can simultaneously explore products and available EMI or other financial support options.

A word of caution; not all customers, except gamers, might own Head Mounted Devices (HMD). This suggests that retail VR experiences should not limit themselves to engaging with only certain devices but should enable immersive shopping experiences through a wide spectrum of mobile devices. This will aid customer adoption further leading to explosive growth in the XR-powered retail space.

COVID-19 is perhaps irrevocably changing human behaviour and that includes the many retail-led transactions that people have on a regular basis. Physical touch and trials will be replaced with virtual experiences powered by immersive technology. People will make buying decisions based on a virtual, computer-generated replica of physical goods. 

What's encouraging is the rate at which XR technology is accelerating. Retailers could embed touch and smell into customers’ virtual experiences quicker than earlier expected. We believe the combination of emerging tech like XR and AI is going to provide the world with an array of immersive and perhaps sci-fi-like shopping experiences to explore. 

A version of this article was published in Analytics India.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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