Virtual reality and the future of eCommerce

In 2020, eCommerce received a big boost as stores shuttered their doors and cities worldwide ground to a halt in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fast-forward almost two years, and consumer behaviors and expectations have changed, perhaps irrevocably. Our already online lives have become more internet dependent and, with the introduction of the metaverse, things could become even more digital.

Consider how shopping has changed over the past two years. We no longer go to a store first to see what’s there; we go online and might head out to a brick-and-mortar location if we feel the need or desire. Even grocery shopping trends have shifted, with about 45% of customers now shopping online more regularly and 30% of consumers reporting they shop less at grocery stores, according to Acosta’s COVID-19 research.

Plus, with Amazon’s same-day, next-day, and two-day shipping now an eCommerce staple, plus virtual reality experiences at our favorite retailers, we can do so much more without ever leaving the comfort of our homes (or needing to wear pants). So, how can an eCommerce professional keep up?

The eCommerce landscape has shifted and will continue to change as the implementation of new technologies becomes more commonplace. With major retailers moving towards virtual stores and unique online experiences, now’s the time to investigate and explore these opportunities for your business. Read on to learn more about the latest in virtual shopping, the metaverse, and to understand how it can boost your sales and blow your customers’ minds.

What is the metaverse?

The “metaverse” feels like the biggest buzzword in circulation right now as major tech CEOs preach the metaverse as the future of the internet. But is it? Depending on who you ask, you might be told the metaverse really is the future — or that it’s a video game, or a horrible version of Zoom.

In short, the metaverse is to 2022 what the internet was to the 1970’s.

At the macro level, the metaverse is a collection of technologies that include virtual reality and augmented reality. It translates to a unique digital economy where users can create, buy, and sell goods.

What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality (VR) is the use of computer technology to create a simulated environment. In short, it’s a digital version of the real world. VR has gained popularity for its immersive properties, allowing a user to interact with a 3D virtual world. By simulating as many senses as possible, such as vision, hearing, touch, and even smell, a computer can transform into a gatekeeper to an artificial world. It’s no wonder VR has become increasingly popular with video game aficionados.

On the opposite side of the same coin is Augmented Reality (AR), which is similar to VR, but with one foot in the real world. With AR, a computer uses sensors and algorithms to determine the position and orientation of a camera and then renders the 3D graphics as they would appear from that viewpoint, thus superimposing computer-generated images over a user’s view of the real world. That is to say, AR simulates artificial objects in your real environment, like seeing a T-Rex in your living room (AR) versus being chased by a T-Rex through a jungle (VR).

How are these technologies leveraged today?

Virtual reality is now being used by retailers to bridge the gap between physical stores and their online counterparts. In the United States, it was estimated that by the end of 2021, 58.9 million people would use VR and 93.3 million would use AR at least once each month. As a result of the pandemic, EMarketer also noted people would use “Extended Reality” (XR) to work, socialize, study, and shop at home. And the number of people using VR could rise to 64 million this year, meaning it’s time to learn how these technologies are used today.

VR-fuelled experiences are becoming commonplace among a number of consumer industries, including the real estate and retail sectors.

Nike uses XR in its physical stores, allowing customers to scan items like shoes or clothing to view specifications and other item information. Customers can also enter a VR world to experience the different steps in the supply chain so they can understand how and where their items are made in an effort to improve corporate social responsibility and branding. The company also uses AR to support its Nike Fit tool.

Warby Parker and many other eyeglass retailers utilize AR so customers can “try on” glasses from the comfort of their homes, enabling shoppers to pick out their perfect frames. Beauty brands like L’Oréal, Sephora, and more use AR to deliver makeup try-on experiences, sometimes in collaboration with other groups.

How can I leverage these benefits and perks?

If you think you’re ready to use XR to enhance your eCommerce store, consider the following ways to implement these technologies.

Set up a virtual store

A virtual showroom or store enables your customers to visit your virtual storefront from the comfort of their home. Customers might be able to browse through your clothing racks, for example, by clicking on items to pull up details, similar to being in a real store. Perhaps they can also meet up with friends in the virtual world to shop together in real time.

Check out this Marketwatch article to learn more about technologies that facilitate online shopping.

Deliver in-store experiences that surpass customer expectations

Wait, isn’t the idea here to boost eCommerce? While it might seem counterintuitive, XR can be a great asset to your physical stores by providing a more memorable shopping experience. Consider offering special deals through the use of XR that encourage customers to check your eCommerce domain (for example, an online-only discount code) once they test out the XR experience in store.

Hold a live event

While not precisely XR, a live shopping event via social media, Zoom, or another online space might be just the ticket to get your customers together and excited about a shopping experience. Live events are rapidly growing in popularity as eCommerce businesses leverage influencers and social platforms to host unique events that build community while closing sales.

Offer a virtual Try Before You Buy

If you sell furniture or large items, can you leverage AR to piggyback off of Ikea Place to show your customers what those items would look like in their space? What about an AR application like the Warby Parker program to allow your customers to see what accessories look like on them, leveraging the camera on their smartphone? The applications are many and the opportunities endless.

In early January, fashion retail behemoth H&M appeared to flirt with the Metaverse, with rumors abounding that the company had entered into a partnership with CEEK to sell virtual fashion. But, days later, H&M denied the reports, stating, “We’d like to confirm that H&M is not opening a store in metaverse at this time…. We are also not collaborating with CEEK.”

“At this time,” however, could indicate the metaverse really is a future prospect for the global fast fashion retailer.

But is the metaverse and XR-fueled shopping too futuristic? Is the metaverse just a buzzword? The answers to these questions are unknown.

Here’s what we do know:

The past two years have seen eCommerce grow in leaps and bounds. While 2020 saw a boom created by the global Covid-19 pandemic, 2021 brought a slew of changes, including data privacy changes that dramatically impacted merchants’ social media ads. Supply chain snags throughout the last 12 months forced merchants to get creative with their inventory as well. In short, eCommerce has done what it’s been doing since its advent: evolved.

As eCommerce professionals head into 2022, a few major technology trends will shape the way you do business. While early adoption of new platforms will continue, this is what you need to be prepared for.

Trend towards first-party tracking

The tracking cookie will continue to crumble throughout 2022, much to the dismay of marketing executives and analytics companies worldwide. Apple kicked off the ripple that’s making its way through the e-world all the way back in 2020 with its iOS 14.5 update, but support from Google and Mozilla put the final nail in the coffin of the long-lived third-party cookie. When combined with new privacy-first actions like Apple’s recent changes for Facebook and consumers’ growing demand for more privacy, there’s simply no denying it: the future is first-party.

Expect to see a rise in email marketing and direct communication to customers throughout the purchase journey. Think reactive emails to abandoned carts, notifications of previously viewed products, and sophisticated discounts or first-time customer incentives. Say goodbye to gaining access to customer data anywhere but your own site.

Increased interest in voice & conversational shopping

Did you know voice eCommerce sales are predicted to reach a whopping $19.4 BILLION in 2023? Expect to see competitors continue to incorporate voice shopping to make it even easier for customers to buy goods online. If you’re looking for an added edge, consider conversational shopping so you can interact with your customers in real time. Experiment with chat apps like Facebook Messenger and/or voice technologies like Alexa and Siri to allow customers to engage directly with your business, get recommendations, and even make purchases.

Offering diverse payment options

You already know the key to a great customer experience lies in choice, and payment method is no exception. By diversifying your payment technology, you can build trust, reduce cart abandonment, and even encourage shoppers to spend more. The growing interest in “buy now, pay later” (BNPL) payments like Affirm as well as seamless one-click payment options will continue its rise in popularity throughout the year, appealing to shoppers looking for greater flexibility and ease in their online shopping experiences.

Forecasts for 2022

Although the old adage tells us that what goes up must come down, the opposite appears true for eCommerce as the online retail sector continues to grow without stopping.

Insider Intelligence estimates total U.S. retail sales will increase 2.5% year over year (YoY) in 2022 to $6.624 trillion and eCommerce sales will grow 16.1%, while growth for in-store sales — which will account for more than 80% of total retail sales — will be close to stagnant.

Best practices for eCommerce in the post-pandemic world

As consumer expectations continue to soar, it’s never been more important to ensure you adhere to the “rule book” of eCommerce best practices.

Streamline, streamline, streamline

Streamlining from beginning to end is paramount to a great customer experience. This means you should have an eye-catching headline, strong and accurate description, photos or video of your products, and clear details on any shipping fees or timelines. Finally, make it as simple as possible for customers to check out and pay for their goods.

Don’t forget SEO

Many consumers find your products through online searches, so it’s especially important to leverage good SEO practices in all of your product listings. Use keywords in your headline, descriptions, and alt-text as well as meta-descriptions, when applicable.

Use social proof at every opportunity

You already know consumers are more likely to trust peers than claims in ads, which is why social proof is king. Ask for reviews from happy customers and encourage good feedback by delivering on your promises. Then, leverage this social proof in your advertising.

Wrapping up — Start planning your virtual reality plays today

Although not as urgent as fixing your supply chain and logistics, virtual reality, augmented reality, and extended reality shopping are huge opportunities for eCommerce merchants. Begin planning today how you can incorporate VR into your buyer experience to get ahead of the curve.