Virtual reality: Changing the front and back end of the retail sector

16 Dec, 2016

It’s the early nineties. A teenager is pulling on a cumbersome Virtuality helmet and climbing into an oversized plastic armchair to enjoy a low-resolution flight through a primary-coloured world, in an approximation of a Harrier jump-jet. Fast forward 20 years and that same person is slipping on an HTC Vive and stepping into the inner workings of a nuclear reactor, not as part of some disaster-averting video game, but as critical safety training for their job in the nuclear industry.

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Once a gaming gimmick, VR is now a proven game-changer that cuts across everything from training and development, design and engineering to online learning. However, no industry has been touched in quite the same way as retail, with VR creating new opportunities at every point in product design, production and supply chain.

Let’s take a look at how VR is adding value to the retail landscape and where it could go in the future.


The golden thread of retail begins with a blank sheet of paper, or rather an empty CAD file and the germ of an idea. By moving this ‘blank canvas’ into an immersive 3D world, ideation can take new and interesting forms that dispense with the limitations of requiring a variety of materials to hand, or even a large physical space.

This virtual playground is enhanced by the ability to include other people in the process, with collaboration by VR providing unique ideation experiences for globally-distributed design teams. Where ideas are born of (or influenced by) Big Data, VR also provides unique perspectives for data visualisation.


According to a recent PwC survey, the most popular application for VR in the manufacturing industry lies in product design and development. Along with complementary tech such as AR and 3D printing, VR product design can overcome some of the limitations of traditional drafting techniques. Even a 3D CAD design on a screen is a two-dimensional representation of a 3D model, and manipulating it with a mouse is no substitute for assessing it in an immersive 3D environment.

By placing prototype products in a VR environment, through either traditional headset VR or CAVE-based systems, designers not only get a more realistic view of their products, they are also able to interact with them in the manner of a user, rather than a designer. This makes VR a powerful tool in the area of consumer product usability.


In a world where the mid-market for most products is crowded and savvy shoppers benefit from downward price pressure, effective supply chain management can offer the best opportunities for retailers to carve out precious margin. By extending the VR models used for product design into a VR enabled supply chain, businesses can quickly manipulate and approve designs, configurations and SKUs; increasing speed to market. The impact of proposed design changes can also be assessed more quickly, fuelling innovation and continual improvement.

For industries where the transparency of a supply chain is a valuable differentiator, such as the food industry, VR can offer further advantages. McDonald’s has added depth to their recent TV campaign promoting the provenance of their meat, by creating the ‘Follow Our Footsteps’ experience. This uses Oculus Rift and Samsung VR to put the customer directly into their farming supply chain, offering both immersive 360-degree video of suppliers’ farms and apps that recreate activities as diverse as potato harvesting and egg collecting.


Some may say that the virtual storefront was born with the rise of internet retail at the dawn of the millennium, but these ‘storefronts’ remained as little more than online catalogues for over a decade. While interactivity extended beyond licking a finger to turn the page, there was not much that was immersive about this shopping experience. For all the convenience, it could not match pulling on the dress, testing out the sofa or starting the engine in a physical store.

With home VR experiences now within the reach of many, online retailers can provide an experience more akin to their bricks-and-mortar counterparts. Whilst haptics and the related technologies to help customers feel the products may take a little more time, VR can allow shoppers to see products in the context of their own lives. Ikea has gone as far as building a virtual kitchen showroom app for the HTC Vive, allowing customers to walk around their new kitchen before any flat-pack has been assembled.

VR can also be used to allow customers to ‘try before they buy’ with less tangible products, such as foreign holidays. Thomas Cook is providing virtual breaks in a number of locations, from a stroll around Manhattan to a snorkelling excursion in Sharm-el-Sheikh. Samsung have taken this one-step further with their Samsung 837 store in New York, eschewing physical products entirely in favour of VR experiences.


Once the product is in the customer’s home, VR offers manufacturers and retailers an opportunity to extend their relationship beyond the purchase of the product, particularly for aftercare. Amazon took a step up from the dreaded telephone tech support in 2013 with the Mayday feature for their Kindle Fire range of tablets – live video support was only a click away.

VR has the potential to take this further still. Tech support often suffers from an inability to see what the customer sees. Video chat can help, as can screen-sharing for computer or tablet diagnosis. However, for physical objects – particularly those that are installed or intransient – the combination of a 360 degree camera and a VR headset could put the support tech ‘in the room’ with the customer, while a combination of VR and AR could provide instruction back to the customer in a clear and intuitive manner. The impact of this on the brand experience should not be underestimated.

VR technology is evolving rapidly. With each advancement in convenience, usability and immersion, this disruptive force presents new ways to improve customer experience, boost revenue streams and enhance customer relationships. It has taken twenty years for VR to make an impact in business, but the time to the next breakthrough or enhancement is more likely to be measured in months not years.

For more on the latest in developments in VR technology, visit the Immerse blog.


Featured image credit:

By Maurizio Pesce from Milan, Italia (ImmersiON VRelia Virtual Reality Headset) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons