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Retail of the future: Will VR replace the high street by 2050?



Retail. It’s the life-blood of the UK economy, employing 1-in-10 people and accounting for £358billion of annual sales. But where is it heading? 

Around 20% of purchases currently come from online shopping, meaning the vast majority of us still visit bricks and mortar outlets. Nevertheless, with giants like Debenhams, HMV, House of Fraser, Poundworld and Maplin amongst the household names collapsing in the last 12 months alone, all is not well. 

Since January this year, failing retailers number more than half the 2018 and 2017 total, suggesting more trouble ahead. But do we really need high streets or shopping malls at all? Times are changing, and some experts now predict that within the next 30 years physical stores will be replaced by VR. 

We’re not so sure. 

The VR shopping revolution 

VR shopping experiences are nothing new. Rewind to 2015 and British designer Allison Crank created a virtual reality shopping centre where visitors could walk through digital installations, meet weird and wonderful creatures and become part of fantastical scenes.

The world of science fiction has long pondered the possibilities of VR retail. Movies such as Ready Player One are packed with next-gen purchasing journeys, many of which don’t need shoppers to leave home. 

In the real world, VR shopping as a practical alternative to the high street is in infancy, if not an embryonic stage. Compared with less-disruptive Augmented Reality, few brands have really been experimenting with VR due to prohibitive development and equipment costs. Nevertheless, early adopters are already at work. 

John Lewis virtual showrooms allow consumers to see what products would look like in their own home 

Topshop invited selected customers to watch the Topshop Unique London Fashion Week AW12Show from a virtual ‘front row’.

The IKEA VR Experience gives consumers a chance to fully customise a choice of different kitchens to see what combinations of colours, drawers and more work best. 

Ralph Lauren’s flagship store rolled out interactive fitting rooms last year, so shoppers can rifle through entire inventories of fashion options and communicate with sales assistants

Psychology of social shopping 

Humans are becoming more accustomed to digital socialising. Just look at the rise of live music events within gaming platforms, or social media itself, for evidence. Yet that doesn’t mean we don’t crave real interactions. 

Virtual technology is now answering the basic retail questions. We can see if a dress fits properly without trying it on. One day it may even be able to tell us how something tastes or smells through sensory replication. But what VR shopping can never recreate is the social aspect of actually going shopping. 

Emotional responses to shopping 

It’s not just which friends we’re meeting that makes us want to hit the high street, either. Independent stores win customer loyalty because they get to know customers’ likes and dislikes. When a server refers to us by name and can make suggestions based on past purchases it leads to a positive emotional response. 

This happens online but an algorithm makes recommendations, so the emotional power is reduced. According to some predictions, real world stores are far better placed to exploit this concept in the future, although they are unlikely to function in the same way as today. 

Shops of tomorrow

Stores are adapting to 21st Century consumer habits, and trialling new ways to fight back against the rise of online. According to Steve Tooze, The Future Laboratory’s foresight editor, current experiments with in-store experience, design and layout is just the beginning. 

“I think the idea of the death of the store has been greatly exaggerated,” he told Drapers last year.

“The store will become the purveyor of product, a glorified warehouse. We’ll see virtual reality and artificial intelligence come into the store experience and, rather than going to a store to buy product, it will be about product immersion. It will be the resurgence of the store.”

We have previously blogged on the rise of brand experience destinations, which is what Tooze means. Whether enough firms can come up with enough unique ideas to make experience trump convenience remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the appetite, habits and behaviour of shoppers suggests plenty of demand for this type of outlet already. As ever, then, it comes down to innovative thinking.


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