Shopping Mall 2.0

Can Virtual Reality Save Luxury Retail?

As brands seek to add value to the shopping experience, VR is no longer just another marketing gimmick.

Can Virtual Reality Save Luxury Retail?

You’re scrolling through Instagram and discover a Dolce & Gabbana dress you like. But instead of dropping in at the boutique, you visit the brand’s website. You are directed to a virtual boutique – it’s modelled after the physical Dolce & Gabbana store in Osaka – where you eventually buy the dress.

Yes, Dolce & Gabbana is among the growing group of retailers who have jumped onboard the virtual reality (VR) retail bandwagon. With the Covid-19 pandemic pushing luxury towards a digital pivot, VR consumer experiences are the way for brands to continue trading.

First things first, despite steady growth online shopping has shown year on year, customers still spend more in-store than on a website. In March 2019, analytics company First Insight revealed that 71 percent of surveyed shoppers spent at least US$50 more in a physical than online boutique. And with lockdowns becoming necessary for most of 2020, virtual shopping quickly gained traction. It was no longer a marketing gimmick but essential to replicate that “in-store” experience for customers who were now shopping from their living rooms.

In Milan, Gucci created a faux boutique equipped with TV set-like lighting and shelves stocked with latest designs, allowing a live salesperson to lead you on a one-to-one shopping experience from your phone. You could ask to see a Marmont bag up-close, or to compare two different skirts in real-time – think home shopping channels, but so much posher.

And as last year’s holiday shopping geared up, brands like Charlotte Tilbury, Dolce & Gabbana and Ralph Lauren joined the likes of Carolina Herrera and Tommy Hilfiger to expand their digital efforts to recreate virtual shopping spaces.

Ralph Lauren’s VR experience whisks you into their Beverly Hills boutique, where light jazz and low lighting accompany your virtual shopping experience.Image: Ralph Lauren

For Ralph Lauren, a true-to-life rendering of its Los Angeles store greets customers who “drop in” at the VR site, where little blue dots on store mannequins denote products that can be purchased whilst light jazz plays in the background. Turn off the lights in your room, and you’d feel as if you’re whisked away into the Beverly Hills retail space.

While the label’s VR concept admittedly falls on the more rudimentary end of the scale – it only functions as a space for customers to browse the latest collection – David Lauren, chief innovation and branding officer of the company is optimistic that this experience will allow 54-year-old label to connect with newer and younger customers.

“When Covid-19 is done, we expect to see a very big increase of traffic into our stores, higher than it’s ever been and we’re going to stoke that fire with experiences like this,” Lauren promises.

For their VR store, Dolce & Gabbana recreated the interiors of their Paris and Osaka boutiques, where little blue dots denote browsable merchandise.Image: Dolce & Gabbana

It’s not just Ralph Lauren that’s benefitting from this VR boom; Obsess, the company who helped them create this new VR experience, is reaping the rewards too.

Just last October, Obsess secured funding from three venture capitalists, bringing its total raised funding up to US$3.4 million. Notably, Obsess’ technology forgoes the need of having a set of clunky-looking VR goggles, opting to keep their virtual experiences solely web-based.

“Retailers want their virtual stores to be more than gimmicks,” pointed out Neha Singh, founder and CEO of Obsess. “For some brands, it’s still an experiment, and they want to see what happens with it and it’s still a trial. But a lot of brands have progressed much further and they’re kind of thinking around this virtual-stores-as-a-concept and how they integrate it strategically into their plan.”

Press notes by Obsess highlighted that customers have averaged the same amount of time on VR platforms as on an e-commerce site. On top of that, for one (unnamed) client, Obsess’ VR tech helped increase retail conversion rates by almost 50 percent through virtual reality as compared to shopping the same collection on a regular “click and buy” set up.

Last November, Obsess also masterminded a virtual beauty emporium for makeup maestro Charlotte Tilbury. Known as Charlotte Tilbury Beauty Wonderland, the VR space is fully integrated with the beauty label’s e-commerce engine.

This ensures that product pricing and availability are kept accurate throughout in the browsing experience. Beyond transactional means stocked with makeup kits, the virtual room invites you to watch live events, pre-recorded makeup tutorials and host friends via video chat to simulate the experience of buying makeup in groups.

“We have always been a digital first brand; it’s at the heart of everything we do, so by launching this virtual store, we are truly operating as an omnichannel business,” said Charlotte Tilbury. “I want you to feel like you are literally stepping into my world.”

On top of shopping curated makeup kits, Charlotte Tilbury’s virtual emporium hosted makeup tutorials, and a video chat where you could shop with your friends.Image: Charlotte Tilbury

Back home, local designer Lisa Von Tang also introduced VR. Instead of having to complete SafeEntry or fiddle with your masks, you need only to log into a provided URL, and wait to be whisked away to the doorway of a shophouse space. Upon entering, you embark on a tour, during which items serve as checkpoints where you can access specialized content. For example, a button on the piano brings up a video of a pianist passionately performing a musical piece whilst wearing Lisa Von Tang SS21 pieces. Other parts of the space bring you to specific items that inspire the designer, including personal effects and quotes.

“Something that is important during times of isolation is the sense of discovery. I wanted to create an experience that allows you to discover the essence of who we are as a brand,” Von Tang explained. “It’s important to me that people who are not in a particular venue at a particular time can still enter our show and connect with us. This virtual way of immersing you in our story is a wonderful medium to reach fans from around the world.”

VR shopping is also used by brands to elevate the shopping experience. “As fancy as technologies like augmented reality and virtual reality sound, they are only as good as the value they bring to your customer experience,” pointed out Anna Brettle, founder of Stellar Global – a company that specialises in creating data-driven retail experiences. “Observe how your customers are currently interacting with your brand, then determine how virtual shopping experiences can make those interactions better.”

Last June, Singapore was one of the first few countries where Piaget rolled out a virtual salon for their customers to continue browsing without leaving their homes.Image: Piaget

Consumers like Marilyn Lum, executive director of property company Lum Wen Kay Holdings, are eager to try a VR shopping experience. “I would definitely be open to trying a virtual reality shopping experience, so I can see how the utilisation of technology can give a different perspective to the clothing,” she tells us.

Friend of A Magazine Cheryl Lee concurs. “As long as it’s fun, engaging and seamless, I don’t mind having a virtual shopping experience from the comfort of my room. Now, I am already shopping on multiple e-commerce stores, so the idea of browsing a VR boutique would take this experience to an elevated level.”

Consider Caroline Herrera’s approach as an example. As part of a brand-wide digital revamp that started in 2017 but gained pace during coronavirus lockdowns, the American label began building its own VR shopping experience where product links also included show videos to present how clothing would move on a real body.

  • Carolina Herrera
  • Carolina Herrera

In the fitting room, an augmented reality mirror allowed the shopper to virtually fit clothing to her body in real time. Since then, shopper loyalty multiplied by 50 percent, and plans are underway to include a VR makeup station where beauty junkies can swatch products to their hearts content without risking exposure to the Covid-19 virus.

But it will take more than a handful of brands to turn VR shopping into mainstream retail. Perhaps the key here is patience – only when more companies switch to VR retailing, then can the luxury industry collectively begin to learn what works for customers.

“Not every virtual store will succeed,” said Mikey Vu, a partner at management consulting firm Bain & Co. “As more companies test the concept, they’ll need to better personalise the experience for visitors, and make it easier to discover products or make it a fun experience. If more virtual retailers can hit more elements of that, that is the possible path to success here.”

This story first appeared in the January/ February 2021 issue of A Magazine.

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