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Building an Omnichannel Shopping Experience: AR/VR and the Metaverse

By Bach Nguyen Luu, Deputy Director of Integrated Commerce Solutions/ Head of Digital Commerce & Experience, FPT Software

Omnichannel is no new concept in retail, especially after the COVID-19 outbreak. Brands can no longer rely solely on the brick-and-mortar in-store experience as consumers flock to the internet to shop. Today’s shoppers expect a unified, customised experience, with 76 percent of consumers more likely to buy from brands that personalise customer interactions across touchpoints. This means building a true omnichannel shopping experience is no longer a nice-to-have – it has turned into a strategic priority.

Offline and online co-exist

When e-commerce came to life and forever changed the retail landscape, there were questions over whether online shopping would mean the end of brick-and-mortar stores. However, the past few years have shown that it is not a question of online or offline; instead, both worlds co-exist and complement each other.

Online shopping has boomed in recent years, accelerated by the pandemic. According to UNCTAD, the average share of global internet users that purchase online went from 53 percent in 2019 to 60 percent in 2021. Some countries even experienced a sharper increase, such as the United Arab Emirates, doubling from 27 percent to 63 percent.

Despite this trend, brick-and-mortar stores remain a strategic distribution channel for retailers. Indeed, nearly half of American consumers prefer in-store over online shopping, attributed to factors such as the ability to see and feel products before they buy. What is more, the retail sector is now experiencing a reversal of what happened during the pandemic. In-store sales are growing at a higher rate than online channels. But consumers no longer want offline-only or online-only shopping; they expect a smooth, seamless and highly integrated experience of both.

Given the shift in consumer behaviour, retailers that invest in a solid omnichannel strategy enjoy a competitive advantage over pure online/offline players. On one hand, they can achieve higher revenue as omnichannel consumers shop more frequently. According to McKinsey & Company, in the apparel category, omnichannel customers shopped 70 percent more often and spent 34 percent more than pure offline shoppers.

On the other hand, retailers with a brick-and-mortar presence typically attract more customers organically than online-only players. This translates to lower investment in paid marketing and a better bottom line.

Global retail giants are already participating in the omnichannel game. Previously online-only brand Amazon has joined the brick-and-mortal playing field with Amazon Go and Amazon Fresh. Equipped with technology such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), multi-sensors and state-of-the-art CCTV cameras, these stores allow customers to shop without the hassle of checking out. In return, the company can keep track of consumers’ habits, send corresponding offers and discounts, and offer a customised shopping experience.

Augmented Reality shopping

Consumers should be the focus of any omnichannel approach, and Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR) is the vehicle for brands to become more consumer centric. According to Eclipse, 71 percent of consumers say they would shop more often if they could use AR.

AR/VR bridges the gap between in-store and online shopping. With the help of AI and machine learning, brands can now engage with consumers in a way never seen before. The pandemic has fostered a new demand in retail – the ability to see and feel a product on a digital platform. With stores closed down, the live, in-store experience had to become virtual, and AR/ VR is the perfect solution to fulfil this new demand.

Global brands are beginning to leverage the technology. Ikea is already incorporating AR/VR into its strategy. With its mobile app, the company allows customers to scan their rooms and digitally place furniture in their houses with real-time customisation, browsing through 2,000 catalogue items from the comfort of their own homes.

Metaverse for retail? 

Metaverse – a current buzzword – refers to an “integrated network of 3D virtual worlds” accessible through a VR headset. It is a fast-emerging space where people can shop, be entertained, and it blurs the lines between physical and digital life. Given its potential, the metaverse is expected to empower the next evolution in omnichannel retail, with AR/ VR being the key vehicle for that journey.

Big brands such as Ralph Lauren and Gucci are already on their path of exploring a new business model called “Direct-to-Avatar” (D2A), where they will be selling products directly to avatars – the consumer’s digital personas on the metaverse. Their products are no longer made of atoms, but of bits and pixels.

Even the runway has made its debut on the metaverse. The first ever Metaverse Fashion week was held in March, featuring luxury brands and household names. It is now possible for consumers to sit next to the runway, try and buy any outfit they like in a matter of seconds – all in the virtual world. Companies will not only be selling products on the metaverse but also offer new worlds of virtual experiences to their customers.

With the incredible success that AR/VR games like Minecraft, Fortnite and Roblox have had, the next generation of consumers will be familiar and comfortable with virtual worlds. It is only a matter of time until they will want to see their favourite brands on the metaverse. Major tech players have already invested billions of dollars into making the metaverse an indispensable part of e-commerce. Hence, a good starting point for companies looking to engage with consumers on the metaverse is to build up their resource pool involving AR/VR,5G internet, blockchain, crypto and non-fungible tokens (NFT).

It is only a matter of time until the metaverse becomes the new playground for retailers. Those brands that have planned ahead will take the lead.

Immersive virtual reality tech has vast potential in marketing – but a dark side too…

As an immersive technology, virtual reality (VR) has vast marketing potential to materialise consumers’ desires, says Dr. Chloe Preece, Associate Professor of Marketing at ESCP Business School.

However, it also has a dark side where it can be used to better conceal the current power asymmetries which capitalist systems depend upon.

Alongside colleagues from Royal Holloway and King’s College London, Dr. Preece co-authored a study on how VR is portrayed in the media.

Their findings were drawn from analysis of 146 texts collected over a two-year period, including news articles, white papers, fiction stories, and more.

The researchers discovered that most of the time, in 85% of cases, VR is portrayed in positive terms by the media.

Such views emphasise VR’s potential for improving the economy and its unique ability to place people in others’ shoes, which could contribute to tackling societal issues.

Negative views of VR portrayed it as an addictive and isolating technology, cutting people off in imaginary worlds. These portrayals also suggested VR could contribute to the exploitation of people’s personal data.

In a marketing context, successful practices convince potential customers that they will have a better future if they invest in a product or service. VR is a tool uniquely suited to this because of its ability to artificially create consumers’ idealised visions of the future.

But the researchers warn that people must be aware of how their hopes, desires, and visions of the future can be manipulated by commercial markets in this way.

To convey the potential positive and negative consequences of VR’s expanding role in the UK and other national economies, the researchers created an interactive online game to accompany their research paper.

“Creating an interactive narrative helps us emphasise how VR, as an immersive technology, can give consumers a perceived feeling of agency. The illusion of choice we offer players serves to communicate that, beneath the surface, their decisions are limited by powerful historical, political and social forces,” says Dr. Preece.

The study was published in The Journal of Marketing Management, and a link to the interactive narrative can be found here:

The metaverse gimmick and the forgotten value of video 

The metaverse and Virtual Reality (VR) has had the weight of a number of large big technology companies behind it in the last year; spearheaded by the likes of Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft. Not only did we see its proliferation increase substantially over the pandemic, but the hype has yet to deter, particularly with speculation around products such as Apple’s RealityOS and its AR/VR Headset.

That said, the technology itself, particularly within enterprise systems, has been relatively slow in its adoption. This is because immersive content is more resource-intensive and therefore more expensive to develop, which in-turn creates quite the barrier amongst smaller companies. 

Amongst all of the upward trajectory surrounding the metaverse, it’s easy for early-stage companies to get swept up in the overwhelm and believe that they need to incorporate this into their strategies. What’s needed, however, is a return to implementable video marketing models, and a refined strategy incorporating the value of  video and immersive technology, before companies even begin to utter the word “metaverse” as a potential revenue stream. Guy Parry-Williams, Founder of Imedia8 explores this further…

The metaverse of madness

The metaverse is by no-means a new concept. In fact, it has existed since the first iterations of the 3D internet in the latter part of the 20th Century and early 2000s. However, it has developed substantially in recent years, as charged by the entertainment industry in a bid to make gaming and consumer experiences more immersive. Sitting at the intersection between technological developments and consumer experiences however, lies the issue of hype.

Over-hyping has been a long-standing issue in the tech industry. Major players and media outlets have a combined tendency to take something and transform it into a buzzword, which is louder and more overbearing than the real innovation at the crux of immersive technology.

This has happened to VR to an extent. The global AR and VR market is expected to grow to $209.2 billion this year, but the risk here is that it will be consigned to the drawer marked “gimmick” if teams do not focus on providing the end-user with a truly new experience that is of value to them. VR for the sake of VR does the industry no favours, but when the real benefits can be identified, it will prove to be ground-breaking.

VR is a profitable, but the adage “walk before you can run” rings true

In the case of corporations and enterprise, the metaverse and VR is significantly more challenging to implement, because you’re working less on the basis of entertainment and more in the bustle of protocols and efficiency.

Being able to operate and monetise VR is also incredibly tricky at a lower level because the software solutions which allow VR content to play are fairly limited compared to standard video. Additionally, the option to play 360 VR content outside of using YouTube is restricted, so it’s near-impossible for startups or SMEs to supercharge an in-house VR or metaverse strategy.

That said, it’s not impossible to create an impactful, well-rounded video and VR strategy that gives startups and enterprises the competitive advantage. The metaverse and VR can work within business’ processes, but not without understanding how to get there first. If companies opt to join the metaverse minefield before focussing on a holistic approach when it comes to the possibilities of video, they may be at a disadvantage when it comes to unlocking the future of VR’s potential.

Recognising the value of video

Video marketing was experiencing an upward trajectory before the pandemic, but its inception was certainly a catalyst in many businesses recognising its value. For instance, many companies had to pivot during this time, from somewhat traditional marketing methods to ones which adopted a video-focussed, digital-first approach.

For some, this also included adopting a variety of innovative video strategies that incorporated VR and broadcasting so that their services could still be rolled out during a time where audiences all moved online. The result was ultimately their survival – and, beyond this, they’ve been able to move past this to now grow, adapt and ultimately keep ahead of the competition. However, whilst video marketing is becoming increasingly prolific, this poses more challenges: with many businesses adopting such a strategy, cutting through the noise becomes difficult. So, being able to exhibit a video marketing procedure, but doing so in such a way that aligns with a business’ core values and highlights its USPs, is fundamental.

Ultimately, video content is a complex beast: but when it’s done right, it not only supercharges corporate marketing strategies, but it’s also impactful in terms of revenue, too. Then, once this has been mastered and profitable, companies can look at what the metaverse means to them.

Chris Hassell &Brynley Gibson

Ralph & Kuju partner to offer VR & AR experiences to brands

Brand experience agency Ralph Creative and Kuju, a full service Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) content specialist, have teamed up to offer a one-stop-shop for creating groundbreaking VR and AR experiences across any platform.

The announcement follows their earlier co-production of a music remix experience for Grammy Award winning duo The Chainsmokers and Sony Music. The experience, for the single Paris, was unveiled at SXSW in Austin to great applause.

“We are thrilled to be announcing this partnership today,” said Kuju’s Head of Studios Brynley Gibson. “When Ralph first approached us about a collaboration on The Chainsmokers’ VR experience it seemed a great fit: our interactive entertainment background in music and VR, alongside their impressive expertise in brands. We found in Ralph kindred spirits with a passion for creating cool innovative projects and we’re looking forward to showing the world what we will come up with next.”

Chris Hassell, Founder of Ralph added: “Working with Kuju is hugely exciting. We knew we wanted to find a partner that had true game development experience but never thought we’d find someone with such a pedigree, with many years of VR experience across many platforms. Based on the success and positive feedback of Paris.VR on the PlayStation Store, we are looking forward to having a lot of fun and doing more groundbreaking work with them in the future for new and existing clients.”


OPINION: Augmented reality is going mainstream by stealth

We may have talked excitedly about Virtual Reality (VR) for the past five years, but it still feels like an emerging  technology.  I read the other day that 63% of Americans are not aware of VR or haven’t got a clear idea what it is, which means there is still a massive wow! factor opportunity.

We have tested VR a lot and have run a couple of campaigns for mobile operator DNA including a pop-up VR downhill ski experience that put the public in the boots of Olympic skiers via two 360-degree giant slalom and ski cross videos.  We used VR because it was cool and new – it hadn’t been attempted before in Finland.

VR is still quite stunt driven because there are limitations, especially with the equipment – good quality sets are still not mainstream.  But in the future it’s going to be huge.  The level of immersion is mindblowing and I can see some custom gaming uses emerging, but by summer 2018 VR will maximise its potential.

VR gives a sense of scale and distance, with its potential uses widespread. For example, I know that VR is used as an effective solution by organisations selling large-scale equipment.  It’s a lot easier to transport a VR setup to demo than it is to transport a military tank.

Because VR gives a really good perspective of being in a particular space, it is also being used to great effect alongside personalisation.  IKEA has used VR to allow shoppers to customise rooms and personally, I think it would be great see a car manufacturer like MINI use VR to produce one-off cars.

I’d love to do a VR walk-round of a MINI, sit inside and adjust it, add my own wishlist and see it brought to life.  It’s great for education too, in fact every time you have to show something new you should use VR.

Having said that, I am going to predict that Augmented Reality (AR) is going to be bigger than VR because of its widespread use on mobile platforms.

Interestingly, most people don’t think they have used AR until you ask them if they use Snapchat filters or play Pokemon Go.  It’s a fantastic sign of impending success when when people use something without knowing it. It’s nearly mainstream.

My ‘watch this space’ tip is to keep a close eye on Mixed Reality. Microsoft Hololens is definitely top of the list as the opportunities are amazing.

Ossi Honkanen is Senior Creative, Manager of Innovation, gadget hoarder and gaming enthusiast at hasan & partners, marketing communications agency with 111 people from 10 different countries, based in Helsinki and Stockholm.

GUEST BLOG: How healthcare firms are embracing Virtual Reality

Just a few years ago, the phrase ‘virtual reality’ would conjure up images of high tech gamers. Today, it’s a very different story. With billions of pounds of investment and half of Silicone Valley now focussed on rolling out VR/AR, it’s time to take the opportunities in this sector very seriously as a marketer.

Cost effective hardware

Over the next two years the industry will be driven by accessibility and affordability of the hardware itself. To date, consumers have been limited on choice, with early adopters splashing out thousands to be the first to jump on the wagon. But there are cost effective alternatives that the mass market is certainly warming to, namely utilising their mobile devices within a built for purpose headset – take Google Daydream and Samsung Gear for example.

Social media will drive VR

Facebook picked up Oculus for a reason. They predicted the VR trend and will play a huge part in making it a daily reality for many of us with the official launch of their Virtual World Project, which has all the signs of changing the way we communicate with each other.

How will brands get involved

We are already seeing big brands incorporate VR into their marketing campaigns, although arguably, right now it’s to drive publicity rather than generate any decent level of return, namely due to the lack of consumer education and accessibility to hardware.

Last Christmas we saw John Lewis give shoppers the chance to virtually bounce along with the animals from its Christmas advert, with the VR aspect being seen as the ‘cherry on the top’ of this huge integrated campaign. This was a great extension, but it’s where consumer experience is a key marketing tool for a brand that this technology comes into its own. The leisure and holiday industry for one is wising up to the power of virtually transporting consumers to its destinations. What better way to show off a beautiful beach resort in is full glory than to give consumers a fully immersive experience without them having to leave their home? Marriott has taken this one step further with telephone booths designed like teleportation devices fitted with heaters and wind jets for complete virtual immersion into a warm, breezy beach destination.

But these mainstream consumer industries are just playing with the technology right now. The consumer healthcare industry on the other hand has so many revenue generation possibilities opened up by VR and AR. In fact, Global Industry Analysts predict that the worldwide market for virtual reality in healthcare will reach $3.8 billion by 2020*.

Healthcare charities have been quick off the mark to recognise this opportunity to drive awareness and education. The UK National Autistic Society has created a VR film enabling people to experience what it’s like to live with the condition and, with the help of Samsung Gear, has taken this on tour around UK shopping centres. From the trade’s perspective, health care professionals can now step into the shoes of sufferers and therefore learn to be more empathetic towards patients.

Similarly, with the help of VR, healthcare and over the counter brands can now add a new dimension of value to their patients, with supportive (and branded) VR experiences that can help with depression and anxiety, SAD, manage pain plus many other ailments.

Furthermore, fully immersive experiences that educate on the correct administration of drugs and self-treatment products deliver a standard and consistency of education never seen before. Not only does this take the brand marketing to a new level but it has the potential to reduce the rising admittances to hospital emergency departments – and could even help prevent death.

Before marketers dismiss this technology due to the perception that it commands a high price tag, they only need to look at 360-degree video. Introduced by Facebook and YouTube in 2015, marketers have at their fingertips entirely immersive and highly interactive videos. Combine the cost of a basic 360-degree camera (£200) and the smartphone’s built-in gyroscope, and suddenly you have a ‘window’ into a virtual environment. Forget the frills and fancy extras of photo booths, a straight forward 360-degree video game alone can provide enhanced education on a product’s offering, benefits and usage.

We as marketers are only just at the beginning of an exciting journey into what it can bring to our wider marketing strategies. Where compelling and fully immersive experiences help to market a brand then these technologies are the future – and they don’t need to blow the budgets. It’s time to recognise the potential, get into the minds of your consumers and start to reap the rewards before other brands steal the show.

Hayden Allen-Vercoe is COO of Orbital Media, digital and social media specialists with experience in delivering virtual reality in consumer healthcare.

Chatbots and VR to take over brand interactions by 2020…

Research by Oracle suggests the relationship between customers and brands is set to undergo a “technological revolution” which will cause the number of human-to-human interactions to fall.

A total of 800 senior marketing and sales professionals across EMEA were polled for the ‘Can Virtual Experiences Replace Reality?’ report and found 78 per cent of brands expect to provide customer experiences through virtual reality in the next four years. Meanwhile, 80 per cent expect to serve customers through chatbots. 

Despite brands willing to embrace new technologies for the customer journey, many are struggling to make use of the valuable customer and prospect data, with 60 per cent not currently including social or CRM data in their customer analytics.

42 per cent already collect a great deal of data from multiple sources, but are unable to extract customer insights from it; and 41 per cent agree smarter analysis of customer data will have the biggest impact on the experience they deliver to their customers.

Daryn Mason, senior director, CX Applications at Oracle said: “While virtual reality may be seen as a passing craze by some, the commitment of some of the world’s biggest companies to develop VR products for consumers suggests otherwise.  Brands will always look to experiment with new technologies as they try to find ways of delivering innovative and memorable experiences for their customers.

“Brands are at a crossroads. There’s an early-mover advantage to experimenting and launching innovative services while others wait and see, but they need to walk before they can run.”

The report indicates brands are looking to implement innovative technologies that allow their customers to continue interacting with brands on their own terms. 80 per cent of brands will be using chatbots for customer interactions by 2020; 78 per cent of brands expect to be using VR for CX by the same year; and 48 per cent have implemented automation technologies in sales, marketing and customer service.

Mason adds: “The reality is that many brands are still unable to get a complete view of each individual customer so the immediate priority needs to be to organise and get value from the data they already have.  Customers will value a quick, helpful, personalised interaction regardless of how it’s delivered so there’s hope for us humans yet.”

Access the full report here