The next item you try on at the mall might be a virtual reality headset.
No longer relegated to video gamers, VR is coming to amusement parks, movie theaters and classrooms. But the technology presents a major opportunity for retailers as they try to lure fickle shoppers into their stores, particularly as consumers shift more of their buying habits online.
Already, Ikea, Lowe?s, Toms and North Face are turning to virtual reality to sell products, boost their brands and make shopping more fun.
?Virtual reality is going to fundamentally transform the human experience of shopping,? a report from digital agency SapientNitro said, predicting that it would ?lift sales for those retailers who get ahead of the curve.?
Lowe?s has added a futuristic edge to the often teeth-gnashing process of remodeling a kitchen or bathroom.
In 19 stores around the country the home improvement chain has installed a space that enables shoppers to see a 3-D mock-up of their renovation plans.
Called the Holoroom, the simulated space can be personalized with individual room sizes, equipment, colors and finishings. Shoppers can give Lowe?s the dimensions of a room and fill it from a selection of thousands of Lowe?s products.
Then they slip on an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to look at how all the elements play together (an employee can switch out parts of the room while the customer is still looking). The design is also viewable at home on YouTube 360 with a Google Cardboard viewer, which Lowe?s gives out free through on-site vending machines.
Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe?s Innovation Labs, said the Holoroom helps nudge people over the biggest hurdle when it comes to a room refresh: imagining what those changes will look like in real life.
?If you think about the way people conceptualize remodels now, it?s really abstract,? Nel said. ?They go and get a little swatch here and one there and lay it on a table.?
But with virtual reality, people can get a much more ?holistic? and immersive view of how a slab of marble or different paint color can change an entire room ? drastically increasing the likelihood that they will go with Lowe?s for their project, Nel said.
?It removes five steps along the way,? he said. ?Anyone who has done a renovation has a really visceral reaction.?
Virtual reality headsets mimic the sights and sounds you find in the real world, using a combination of motion-tracking, graphics and algorithms. The next step for Lowe?s is incorporating Microsoft HoloLens and Google?s Project Tango, where virtual objects can be overlaid on top of real objects.
?You can stand in your own kitchen and overlay a fridge on top of your own fridge,? Nel said. ?It?s uncannily real.?
Although the virtual reality industry is still in the early stages, its annual revenue is forecasted to grow from less than $1 billion to $30 billion by 2020, according to advisory firm Digi-Capital. Annual sales of headsets could hit half a billion by 2025, Piper Jaffray predicts.
Down the line, as virtual reality becomes more mainstream and consumers buy their own headsets, much of so-called v-commerce could move away from stores and into the home. That means you could walk through a store and browse for new jeans ? all without leaving your couch.
But analysts say companies have to be smart about deploying virtual reality so that it?s brand-relevant and doesn?t feel gimmicky.
Virtual reality is also being used to add an experiential aspect to in-store shopping, unrelated to the actual buying of products. Retailers are dabbling in virtual reality for the same reason they are adding other conveniences like curbside pickup ? to lure people back into stores. They figure that the sci-fi aspect of VR is a form of entertainment that can?t be replicated from behind a computer screen.
?Retailers have been down for so long, they have got to differentiate themselves to get people to shop,? said Ron Friedman, a retail expert at advisory and accounting firm Marcum in Los Angeles.