When I proposed bringing relevance back to offline retail through a tightly designed online experience to offline utility loop, I also criticized attaching new technological features, without context, in hopes of boosting the engagement metric. Despite my reservations about how tech innovation has been put into action, I am enthusiastic about our future with virtual reality (“VR”) in retail. Online and offline commerce are interconnected and need one another to sustain growth.
If we are to invest resources towards integrating a new digital channel, VR is the breakout star because VR can create personalized pop-up shops on demand, ushering in the next iteration of live digital experiences that doesn’t separate viewers from experience.
Smart retailers, whose businesses continue to flourish with the times, deepen community favorability by mindfully linking physical experiences with popular digital mediums to inform who they are in relation to you. In December 2016, streetwear brand and retailer Kith organized a pop-up shop in Aspen and used Instagram stories to merge its designed-for-Aspen products with the experience of being in Aspen. Global Kith fans had a real-time window into the limited-time event, while Kith’s physical presence helped build a community in Aspen. Pop-up shops are temporary, but Kith Aspen was not the first time Kith refined commerce through share-worthy offline retail experiences. Over the past couple of years, Kith expanded its retail locations to actively foster a community online and offline.
Using Kith’s online to offline model as the framework for better practices in commerce, there are two key points:
- First, Kith’s physical retail spaces are designed with community in mind, because an engaged community evangelizes a brand with user-generated content. This sense of interconnectedness adds soul to brand-generated content.
- Second, Kith used Instagram stories as an in-the-moment window into their brand experience, which adds a level of intimacy that is a step up from a curated photo post. Brands want their “live” stories to reach a global audience, so they leverage tools on platforms like Instagram and SnapChat to try and bridge that physical distance.
VR can be a valuable addition to, or completely replace, digital tactics like Instagram or SnapChat stories, because VR has great potential to imprint the senses of belonging and community that 2D digital mediums attempt to fake while pretending there isn’t a glass screen that separates here from there. That quality alone makes VR an attractive addition to digital marketing and advertising.
We oft repeat the Silicon Valley mantra, “move fast and break things,” but we need to strike a balance between launching an idea and iterating until it resembles an actual concept, versus launching a mindful idea and iterating to perfection. When it comes to VR, a fully interactive experience, taking that mindset to extremes can be a detriment to the growing ecosystem.
It’s time that we use VR’s available tools to remove the barriers and revolutionize the way we connect with one another.
Why is Kate Moss in 360-degree-video?
Charlotte Tilbury’s 360-degree-video advertisement, featuring Kate Moss, is an immersive video ad that tried to break the glass screen between you and their world. (*A simplified explanation: Charlotte Tilbury’s ad is an example of a passive VR experience, as opposed to an interactive VR experience.) Unfortunately, the ad’s goal was lost somewhere along in production because the ad did not leverage the impact 360-degree-video can have as a storytelling tool (1,2); the ad’s execution rendered 360-degree-video as a trendy tech gimmick. We live in a big world, and there are probably people who enjoyed this 360-degree experience with Kate Moss, but I was personally unable to find a convincing reason anyone should glimpse Moss’ world.
A more consumer relevant ad could have been a “hang out with Kate Moss while she gets ready with the perfume” experience. However, the ad would still be an example of applying emerging technology as an afterthought rather than integrating emerging technology as part of the online-to-offline experience. At the end of this experience, I felt no call to action to visit a local retailer or to seek out more digital content.
True VR Is the Key to Long-Term Engagement and Sales
VR has the potential to impart a lasting emotional footprint, but there is little long-term value in creating a VR experience unless it is a holistic integration into the online-to-offline experience. As we’ve seen in Instagram’s and SnapChat’s shoppable stories, an obvious standardization to a VR experience would be adding the “BUY NOW” feature as a call to action. To follow such methodology is lazy, and VR would fail to become nothing more than a passive-aggressive, online-to-online sales channel. Retail giant Alibaba is exploring a future where we shop in virtual malls from our homes; unfortunately this brings us back to how e-commerce growth tends to plateau without a physical tether.
Olivia Kim, Nordstrom’s Director of Creative Projects, is adept at mixing installation-like experiences with the insatiable thirst for a great selfie. Nordstrom’s Seattle flagship, as part of a Nordstrom and Hermès partnership, has a “pop-in” that showcases colorful silk scarves that hang from vertical racks. Dubbed “Silk Experience Room,” there’s also a giant hanging mirror for the selfie-inclined. Though Kim states that the objective of her in-store experience is engagement over sales, she also helped Carol Lim and Humberto Leon catapult Opening Ceremony from a hidden gem to an internationally recognized curator of downtown cool, and it happened by making Opening Ceremony the place to visit.
If we were to build the Nordstrom Silk Room Experience in VR and ensure that it is a mainstay of the online-to-offline loop, it needs to deliver an experience that is immersive and entertains with active participation. After all, if we limit VR to passive sensory-limited replications of real life, why would anyone choose VR over social media content? Though VR can’t engage all five senses, a fun way to interact with the scarves, while reinforcing the brand narrative, could be to teleport the customer to the source of the inspiration. The experience could be a journey outside central Rome, during which you help the designer find their favorite childhood pasta restaurant and learn the paths less traveled (by tourists). Or, since no one has to clean up virtual messes, participants could also pretend to be Olympian ribbon dancers, and a flowing color trail left behind by each twirl can showcase the scarves.
Social Pop-Ups in the Near Future
VR experiences don’t have to be single-person exploration. Facebook is among the giants betting big on social virtual world experiences. Facebook’s existence owes itself to understanding that humans are social beings, and while it can be nice to retreat into your own virtual world, positive peer-to-peer interaction is more emotionally stimulating. When applied to imparting utility in a VR pop-up shop, the experience can expand to include social shopping. VR pop-up shops can provide a shared environment where we connect with our friends and family to ask for their opinions between colors and styles. Or, in an interactive VR experience, friends and family could also “travel” and participate in a branded expedition together. Emailing, text messaging, and video chat have all played a part in revolutionizing how we communicate and collaborate, but those mediums don’t have the ability to let us engage with someone as if they were right beside us and living the same moments.
Memorable kinetic experiences like these are what you can impart with VR as a digital tactic that reinforces the online-to-offline loop. The goal for a VR experience is to deliver a strong narrative and utility.
VR Was What Brands Have Been Unable to Articulate All These Years
When creating a VR experience, the entire virtual world is a data environment, giving you precise measurement and metrics on engagement, specifically the subtleties in ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ that can’t be gauged by an impulsive tap of a button. This data can be leveraged to deliver more individualized experiences on demand.
VR pop-up shops can function any way you want, from wild experiences unlike anything in real life to live product rotations for each unique customer. Shelf space is unlimited and using the aforementioned VR-unique data environment, the consumer has a personalized inventory that doesn’t inundate them with unwanted content. People can have access to in-house stylists from around the world and socialize with them for product advice, or unite with friends and family to explore a shared virtual space. Social shopping could also be a community hang out spot where people can meet other fans of your brand.
VR is the medium brands and tech companies have been trying to mimic in 2D, developing and using tools like “stories” and “live” to bring everyone closer to the experience. Innovative brands have done impressive work within the limitations of tried and tested online tools, and I believe that, rather than searching for ways around the glass screen, it’s time that we use VR’s available tools to remove the barriers and revolutionize the way we connect with one another.