Virtual retail
We speak to Sol Rogers of VR studio REWIND about how brands can move beyond marketing gimmicks, to fully integrate the technology into their approach.

For many retailers, virtual reality has served as a valuable marketing tool, creating excitement in store and garnering coverage in the press. But as mainstream audiences become more familiar with the technology, and begin to buy headsets themselves, brands are seeking to better understand how they can harness it effectively. 

We spoke to REWIND founder Sol Rogers about how brands can use VR to tell richer stories, and engage consumers in store and at home.

In the current retail landscape, why is it so important to make the physical retail experience memorable?

Online shopping is dominating, and consumers need a good reason to go into bricks and mortar stores. This means we have to make sure that the stores themselves are more appealing than ever, and that the retail environment becomes a destination or an event. 

The majority of retailers have been using VR to create those destinations within their bricks and mortar stores. There has been a lot of work that uses VR as a hook or a gimmick, to get people into physical stores. It’s also been used as a marketing tool and its novelty has helped drive a lot of press for retailers. But the press has almost been more important than the quality of the content users are actually engaging with.

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Is that changing? 

Novelty is where we have been for the last three years. But now, that novelty is wearing off and we are starting to encounter a much more educated audience. 

We’re at a really interesting point where VR is going beyond a gimmick and brands are investing in the technology outside of their marketing spends. 

There are now many more opportunities for us to tell deeper stories. People want to experience better narratives, richer stories and products that are more lifelike. It has to be memorable. People need to walk away feeling like they felt something, or it changed their mind, or took them somewhere new. That can be done in a very powerful way with VR. At its core, VR is a transportative medium. Once you put the headset on, you are somewhere else. 

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How is it being used by retailers in effective or engaging ways?

Whether you’re selling a camera or a pair of shoes, VR can help consumers discover and engage with product. The photographs you encounter during the online shopping experience often don’t do justice to the product and don’t help you learn that much about it. We have all bought clothes online that don’t fit once they arrive, or had to order two or three sizes just to find the right fit. As headsets make their way into homes, virtual reality can help people experience product outside the physical store.

For example, virtual catwalks are allowing clothing brands to bring entire collections to audiences around the world. By putting on a headset, you can sit in the front row of a runway show next to celebrities and see the current collection. 

Topshop actually brought this idea in store, and streamed its catwalk at its Oxford Street flagship. This allowed guests to experience the theatre of the runway show and then see and buy the product in person at the store.

It’s about using the technology in a way that’s integrated into the rest of the in store experience. There might be part of the store where you can physically touch and try on product, and then in another, you can put on a virtual reality headset and see the factory and meet the craftspeople who have created the product for you.

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Are there any pitfalls for retailers seeking to tap into VR’s potential?

We’ve been approached to recreate supermarkets and even an entire shopping centre in VR. But to me that makes no sense. Why replicate something that already exists, when virtual reality can create any reality imaginable? 

When we work with our clients, the first thing we ask them is to identify what kind of virtual reality they want to make and why they think they want to make it. They need to find an approach that fits.

A lot of people worry that VR is going to replace things they are already doing. It really isn’t. It’s not going to kill TV, or films, or computer games, or digital out of home. It’s not going to kill retail. It’s just another medium through which brands can engage consumers.