A man with a plan

On my travels this year as a podcaster, lecturer and general human being, I’ve run into some really interesting people in the manufacturing and retail sectors.

We talk trends, as people do, and one thing that comes up every time without fail is virtual reality. Moreover, the idea of a ‘virtual reality shop front’.

It seems that most consider it an inevitability that VR will go mainstream, and have at least a small impact on their industries.

And while it’s interesting to talk about the tech itself, I find the whole thing a great excuse to do an ‘audit’ of the retail shopping experience and the brands sold within.

So here’s my plan: I’m going to wind my watch forward a few years and pretend that the wave has hit.

Let’s suppose that virtual reality is the new normal, and we’re all walking around wearing headsets and bumping our shins on coffee tables. I’m going to try and ‘build’ a hypothetical virtual reality shop front, using just my feel for the customer experience and the expertise of the people I’ve been lucky enough to speak to over the last year.

In doing this exercise, I want to find out: what are the essential elements of the ‘perfect’ shopping experience?

What does retail mean in 2017?

In the last few years we’ve seen big changes in the brand/retailer relationship.

Some, like Apple, Microsoft and Samsung, have become retailers in their own right (some with more success than others).

In other industries, like automotive, we’re seeing innovative brands like Hyundai reinventing the showroom as a retail concept.

At the same time, retailers are making pushes to become brands in their own right, while still selling those brands that have decided to go it on their own. Basically, there’s a big fight for control over the retail shopping experience.

Meanwhile, over all this, looms the huge shadow of tech innovation, and the inevitability that all of this will soon change.

From EY’s digital retail report, a vision of what’s to come:

Physical bricks and mortar stores will not be entirely eliminated, but they will change. Store closures are expected as chains no longer need as many physical stores. Store size will also change, as categories go online. This will drive leasing decisions, physical layout and merchandising plans. Transactions will occur more in the digital space. Retailers will turn to multi-channel models including online, mobile and social commerce, and virtual stores, in addition to physical stores.

Using my fictitious VR store as a case study, I want to explore how these changes will affect the consumer.

Meet the experts

John Vary

Innovation Manager, John Lewis

The Pure Innovator

I visited John Lewis’ innovation manager, John Vary, in John Lewis’ innovation ‘bunker’, which his team calls ‘Room Y’.

John’s team has free reign to create without corporate structures getting in the way. Is that a good or a bad thing? I’d like to find out – the fate of my virtual reality shop could depend on it.

I wanted to talk to John in particular because he’s already experimenting with virtual and augmented reality. A couple of years ago his team made waves by using RFID tech and 3D printed models to help people choose a sofa.

I asked John about that project — and what role the customer played in the process. See what he said in the video.

Now we’re on to something. We can go crazy with technology… let the people customise the products, the colours — maybe even the store itself!

I learned a few lessons about innovation from John:

  • The technology needs to be ‘hidden’ – an enabler rather then the spectacle itself.
  • Customers need to be involved in the process from as early as possible.
  • Whatever you create needs to reflect your brand’s values.

So - what about my store?

I’ve learnt a lot from my panel of experts.

The main thing I’ve realised is that the format of my store – whether it’s virtual reality, online or plain old bricks and mortar – is inconsequential.

What matters is the experience revolves around the customer. That means involving customers from the very beginning (as John said) and not forgetting about them after the sale is made (as Jeremy said).

Personalisation and innovation are words that get thrown around these days, but in reality, they come in many different forms.

A greengrocer who remembers their customers’ preference for green peppers over red, or a retail outlet rearranging its stores for the different seasons, is innovating for the same purpose as I was with my virtual reality shop front.

A few simple principles will guide you through:

  • The aim of innovation must be to make the customer’s life easier, not be flashy.
  • Feedback is constantly collected, listened to and put into practice.
  • Shopping must fit in seamlessly with the customer’s life – and be where they are.

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