Virtual shopping and its technological revolution

Five years ago, Adidas proposed its version of the shopping experience of the future with its virtual footwear wall.
Date:18 August 2017 Tags:, , ,

A technological revolution is under way that will fundamentally change the way we buy stuff. Here’s a closer look at virtual shopping.

By 2020, three out of every four of your consumer interactions will not be face to face with another human. Instead, the majority of your shopping will be self-service – using chatbots and VR – according to new research by computer technology company Oracle.

Oracle’s report, “Can virtual experiences replace reality?” polled 800 senior marketing and sales professionals in France, the Netherlands, South Africa and the UK. Undertaken with Coleman Parkes Research, it targeted the areas of manufacturing and high-tech, online retail and telecommunications.

It reveals an estimated surge of emerging technologies by 2020. Seventy-seven per cent of brands expect to provide customer experiences through virtual reality in the next four years. Some 79 per cent expect to serve customers through chatbots.

It comes as no surprise, given our increasing preference for online and mobile commerce. In response, companies are moving further away from real-life, human interactions into an age of advanced self-service. However, the report also shows that many brands still struggle to manage one of the most fundamental channels for digital consumer activity – social media – indicating that they may be trying to run before they can walk by investing in even more advanced data-centric technologies.

Shopper, serve thyself

In South Africa, by 2020, 77 per cent of brands expect to be providing customer experiences through virtual reality. Chatbot service will also increase to 79 per cent. About 30 per cent have adopted chatbots already. A significant proportion of sales and marketing leaders admit that digital and mobile technologies have caused the greatest change to how their customers and prospects interact with them. Most notably, 40 per-cent of brands agree that people now do more research on their own before making a purchase.

In fact, more than one in three brands say customers and prospects prefer to complete a purchase or resolve service issues without speaking to a human associate, if possible. Even more say customers want to initiate sales discussions themselves. They prefer this to being approached by a brand, regardless of how relevant and personalised the approach is. Customers prefer to make purchases or resolve a service issue without speaking directly with a member of the sales or customer service team, they say.

From VR dressing rooms on a retailer’s website to intelligent chatbots on a telecoms company’s service portal. Merchants are finding ways to make the customer experience more convenient and familiar to consumers. To consumers messaging apps and social networks are their primary communication platforms.

Ad blockers get smarter – and so do ads

Besides changing the way we shop, AI might yet prove to be the saviour of the advertising industry. So says Daryn Mason, senior director, CX Applications, Oracle.

Few people welcome the barrage of messages being pushed at them online. But interestingly, this does not mean they wish to block them, he says. Today’s relatively crude ad blockers will evolve into more sophisticated, smarter, targeted AI brokers. They will filter through ads with even greater granularity based on a deep understanding of a buyer’s needs and online activity.

Soon, buyers will begin to build a virtual profile that clearly outlines which products and services they are seeking, and which is then left to interact with brands directly before bringing back only those communications that are relevant.
 By 2020, the customer experience will largely be defined by two-way discussions between “intelligent” software. This will overtake the unidirectional flow of promotional content, Mason says.
One particularly rich source of valuable data is social media.

Interaction is the now

Nearly half of sales and marketing leaders admit that customers and prospects increasingly want to interact with their brand over social media. They also recognise that news travels fast on social networks, and that this has become both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, when a customer makes a noise about a positive brand experience, this can quickly spread to the masses and generate instant brand equity. On the other, news of a negative experience will travel just as quickly and can seriously damage a brand’s image. According to 40 per cent of sales and marketing leaders, word of mouth has become more crucial to their success in the age of social media.

Oracle’s Cloud services have helped organisations to be more agile in responding to customers, the company says. For instance, General Motors enabled its service teams to gain a better view of customers based on their social media activity. This includes their previous purchases and service requests, and helps them resolve issues more quickly and efficiently.

The makers of audio equipment brands like Denon, Marantz, Boston Acoustics and HEOS, have also moved stepped up their game. D+M Group spotted and fixed a technical problem with its HEOS wireless speaker based on a single customer interaction. Alerted via the cloud, the product design team developed a fix and contacted affected customers. This happened before other customers even realised the problem.

Virtual shopping adoption

Ultimately, let’s not overlook one important observation. Although we may be about to say goodbye to the traditional human-to-human conversation with the helpful shop assistant or salesman that helps us make up our minds when we shop, we’ll still want a personalised experience. If companies make optimal use of VR and chatbots can help achieve that. Not only the customer wins: companies also gain a significant
strategic advantage. A recent study from Harvard Business Review found that
the 15 per cent of companies that are ahead in their use of technology and data intelligence have grown more quickly in the past year. They are better positioned for future growth than their competitors.

“Having the right data at their fingertips will enable organisations to deliver a better, more personalised experience to their customers and deliver the right message to the right person at the right time on the right channel – through virtual reality, on social or otherwise,” says the report. It adds, hopefully: “Customers will value a smart, helpful, personalised interaction regardless of how it’s delivered, so there’s hope for humans yet.”

A glimpse of tomorrow

In May 2016, eBay, Australia’s largest marketplace and iconic Australian retailer Myer joined forces to create the world’s first
virtual reality department store. More than 12 500 products from Myer can be browsed, selected and added to a cart.

It is important not to just replicate the ecommerce experience in a virtual environment. So says Jooman Park, managing director of eBay Australia and New Zealand.

Virtual reality viewers specially designed for virtual shopping are called shopticals. Using them in combination with an app, shoppers can select areas of interest at the beginning of the experience. As shoppers move through the store, smart technology suggests products. They can browse using eBay Sight Search. Customers just hold their gaze on a product to select it. It will them automatically float towards them. The top 100 products are available to view in 3D. Locking eyes on information icons brings up full product specifications, as well as price, availability and shipping details. Purchasing is as simple as holding one’s eyes on the “Add to Basket” icon. This completes purchases via the eBay app.