WATCH: Virtual reality stores are the future of online shopping

Taking the retail experience online to the next level

There is no denying that the global fashion and retail industry, much like other industries, depends on the power of the internet to keep its businesses afloat during the pandemic. While there has been a sizeable decline in sales for many brands due to the lack of foot traffic in physical stores, digital operation paved a way for them to avoid total closure in the past year.

On the consumer side, online shopping has been a way for them to safely get what they need. Although fashion or clothing is not among the top essential things on the list in a time of crisis, the purchasing power of the consumer of such goods gave new opportunities for displaced workers. Locally, the e-commerce concept continues to thrive with many brands realizing the benefit that comes from having a digital space. But internationally, a new retail trend emerges in the form of virtual reality (VR) stores.

Online retail experience to the next level 

No longer just a thing for gamers, the technology of VR spreads its leisure purpose by creating digital replicas of stores, complete with aisles, store displays, and even retail consultants. VR stores take digital shopping to the next level, away from just an online catalogue and add to cart buttons. They are the very definition of "online retail experience" as shoppers can digitally roam through every store stand, marvel at windows settings, and have an interaction with merchandisers just like in the physical stores.

Among the first to dabble in this kind of innovation is US artisan goods and handicraft shop Cost Plus World Market with its "World of Joy" VR store. Last December, the store created a zoom-and-pan interface where shoppers can see every piece on its wooden shelves as if they're wandering around the store floor. By clicking an item, a window will pop up, giving additional info about the product.

The latest to take this digital leap is one of Japan's major department stores, Isetan Mitsukoshi. The retail giant launched this month the VR version of its flagship Shinjuku store in Tokyo as a smartphone app. Shoppers will have an avatar that they can control as they walk inside the department store. Just like in Cost Plus World Market, Isetan Mitsukoshi allows customers to get to know more about the products through a pop-up window, or even better, by chatting with an on-site staff. 

Italian fashion label Gucci is leading the virtual luxury race with its first virtual sneaker. Through the "Gucci Sneaker Garage" in its app, people can don the Gucci Virtual 25, a pair of digital sneakers. Designed by its creative director Alessandro Michele, the '80s-inspired $12 footwear was created in partnership with Belarusian fashion-tech studio Wanna. Apart from the Gucci app, the shoes are possible via Roblox, VRChat, and Wanna Kicks' AR sneaker app.

Benefits of virtual reality stores

Apart from the safeness that these VR stores provide, they also give a sense of exclusivity to shoppers. Compared to e-commerce sites, these VR stores put joy back to in shopping, an essence of pre-COVID retail therapy. It is also best to remember that VR is related to online game creation. Due to that, a lot of fun is being rub off in this kind of digital shopping. 

They minimize the uncontrollable internet pop-ups and elevate the boring flat-lay-image-swiping retail experience. Shoppers have more control on the experience with its easy to navigate options.

According to Storefront, a marketplace for short-term retail online and offline spaces, VR stores also increase accessibility. Big stores are usually located in urban cities. With the internet, people everywhere will get a glimpse of what it is like to shop in a mega retail store, even via its online presence. And eventually, it will be a motivating factor for them to visit the actual store.

Also, did we mention that these VR stores can operate 24/7 and on any device? A quick retail therapy will keep one busy whenever insomnia strikes.

While we have yet to see this kind of retail adventure in the Philippines, with so many digital-savvy Filipinos, seeing VR version of our local shopping destinations is not that far off our distant future.