At times, business needs drive technological solutions. Consider a simple example, the word processor. Prior to the existence of Word and similar applications, office workers used typewriters to develop documents, a process that was time-consuming and provided only limited capabilities for creating and distributing multiple copies.
At other times, technology drives process changes, as is the case with mixed reality: augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). These technologies create opportunities to provide new types of experiences within many industries, including retail. At a time when physical retail locations are languishing due to the ease and comfort of online options, immersive experiences can draw customers in and give them what they are looking for: memorable experiences.
Business consulting firm PwC found that customers are willing to pay up to 16% more for products and services that come with good experiences, and 32% of them will abandon a brand after just one bad one. Speed, convenience, friendliness, and uniqueness are factors customers are seeking. Immersive experiences can include all these characteristics and more.
In the following sections, we explore what an immersive customer experience looks like, what the benefits are for both customers and retailers, how to create an immersive customer experience, and what technology tools support the process.
What Is an Immersive Customer Experience?
An immersive experience is one in which one or more senses are engaged on an enhanced level. Typically, customers are drawn into a separate reality that takes place beyond the ordinary. Software marketplace G2 identifies the following types of immersion:
- Tactical: “Also known as the sense of touch, tactical immersion happens when a user literally touches an object. It measures, identifies, and transfers the message signals between the user and the surface of a real-life object through skin contact.”
- Sight: “Sight immersion is a way to integrate VR or AR to explain a product’s features. Visual experiences like these are a strong engagement point and create a sense of permanent brand recall in the customer’s mind.”
- Narrative: “Audiences still believe in storytelling. … Narrative or hearable immersion lets viewers dive deeper into a product through lifelike sound and creative visuals.”
These immersion types can be found in a variety of immersive solutions, including those listed here.
In your online store, you can create 3D visualizations that help customers truly understand the products they are viewing by giving them the chance to thoroughly examine a product from every angle. The more customers know about a product, and the more familiar they feel with it, the more likely they are to buy it. This is especially true with more costly items that may put a bigger dent in their budget.
Augmented Reality Mirrors
Augmented reality mirrors enable shoppers to view themselves as they normally would, but with some enhancements. For example, the mirror can overlay items that are not physically there. A shopper trying on an actual dress might be able to find jewelry, shoes, and a handbag to match without having to leave the dressing room. This kind of display can be used with anything wearable, including clothes, shoes, jewelry, and makeup.
Virtual Shopping Assistant
Another way to make shopping more immersive and personal is to offer chatbots that can provide information as someone shops in a virtual store. Just as chatbots are used for customer care, they can be used for the actual shopping process as well. These applications are like a human personal shopper but are available 24/7 and never need a break or a vacation. They also provide a good branding opportunity, as you can create avatars or characters to match the personality of your company.
These automated helpers can recommend items that are similar to those the shopper is viewing, to provide a comparison. They can also recommend items that go well together, such as covers or other accessories made to pair with specific electronic devices, like a stand to use with a reading tablet.
Retailers can create virtual shopping experiences to enable consumers to have the experience of shopping in a physical location without actually leaving their homes. Anything from clothing to electronic devices to cars to homes can be presented in this way. This type of shopping saves shoppers time and money and also helps the environment because they are not using vehicles to get to a physical location.
This shopping experience is also helpful to retailers, who can control the sometimes exorbitant costs of a physical location. A digital shopping environment also enables retailers to track the shopping and purchasing behavior of customers very well.
Livestream shopping became popular during the pandemic when retailers wanted to find new ways to reach customers without bringing them into stores. It involves virtually showing customers what’s in a store during a videoed walk-through. Such events are opportunities for shoppers to gather together and even interact with each other for a more social, fun way to shop. To gain more exposure, retailers can encourage participants to post about the experience on their social media accounts.
Pop-Ups and Classes
Retailers can also create opportunities for social engagement in a live, in-person setting. Pop-up stores or trucks are one method that has been around for some time but definitely fits into the newer category of immersive experiences. These temporary shops create a limited-time-only feel that generates excitement and gets people posting on social media about their experience.
Similarly, retailers can offer classes that are in alignment with their brand. For example, a specialty store that sells high-quality olive oils might offer a class about cooking with that ingredient. As with pop-ups, this special opportunity gets people interacting with each other and their own audiences online.
Benefits of Immersive Customer Experiences
The benefits of immersive shopping experiences are only beginning to be explored. Generally, any kind of shopping experience that adds convenience, delight, and personalization is going to be a benefit. As with all new technologies and processes, retailers must experiment to find what works best for their specific products and brand. For example, chatbots might not work well for markets that prefer the human touch.
Customers crave novelty and convenience, and immersive experiences provide both. With immersive experiences, customers can interact with products in new ways. For example, clothing shoppers can try on items in front of a special mirror that offers visual suggestions for items to pair them with, taking into consideration the customer’s size and style. Such an interface can also be used to request that a salesperson bring these items to the dressing room. This level of convenience and personal attention is the kind of service customers return for.
Immersive experiences draw customers into both physical stores and online environments and increase engagement, which leads to improved loyalty. Loyalty is critical in today’s competitive retail environment because customers are less expensive to keep than to attract in the first place.
Additionally, immersive experiences result in higher conversion rates and lower return rates. Retailers commonly see higher sales volume overall as well as an increase in average cart spend. Another benefit is the positive brand image, which may not result in direct sales, but may have a positive impact over time as more customers want to see what you have to offer.
Steps for Creating an Immersive Experience
A quality immersive experience is more than just a digital version of your physical store. It is a vehicle for strengthening your relationship with customers and generating more loyalty and trust. But your strategy should be thought through carefully. Use these suggestions to make the most of immersive processes and technologies.
Start With Your Core Identity
While using technology in new ways will take your company into the future, it’s critical to root this move in the past. Now is the time to break out the vision and mission statements your company likely created in its beginning stages.
For example, the mission of a women’s clothing store that specializes in helping customers create a capsule wardrobe might be to “curate a complete collection of ready-to-wear ensembles for women who have better things to do.” The vision of this company might be “to become the world’s premier provider of understated business wear for women.”
Use these statements to form the foundation of immersive experiences. For instance, an in-store shopping experience for this company might include the use of a special mirror that enables a shopper to virtually “try on” all the different outfit combinations she can create with just six pieces of clothing. The same retailer’s online equivalent could use an avatar that resembles the shopper, again showing all the possible combinations.
Identify the Right Time
Now that you know what the immersive experience could be, the next question to ask is when should it be applied. You may be familiar with the sales funnel, which consists of four phases that form the acronym AIDA: awareness, interest, desire, and action.
As with all kinds of marketing and promotions, you should identify the phase at which you will introduce the outreach. The right offering at the wrong time will not be well received. For example, you would never approach a customer in a standard retail environment and ask them if they want to buy your latest product (action) without even telling them what it is (awareness), demonstrating what it can do (interest), or determining whether it matches the customer’s needs (desire).
Using our women’s clothing retailer as an example, the idea would be to figure out when the mirror technology would be most useful. In this case, it might be useful across more than one stage of the sales cycle. It could be used to generate awareness for customers who know nothing about the capsule wardrobe concept, engender interest or desire in customers who have trouble determining what to wear to work and be used to place orders once the customer has decided to take the action of making a purchase.
Talk Directly to Customers
In addition to convenience, friendliness, and other aspects of good service, customers want a personalized experience. That means providing content to each shopper based on their unique needs. In today’s data-driven environment, retailers can determine those needs through a variety of sources, including past purchases, purchases from other establishments, information provided to get something — such as a newsletter — in return, social media posts, and purchased data that reveals details such as the shopper’s age, income, and interests.
As with any marketing efforts, immersive experiences should be based on this information. For example, a sporting goods store might use beacons, which are in-store sensors, to connect with customers’ smartphones. Customers grant permission for retailers to perform this action and to access prefilled information that enables them to use an app to direct them to products related to the sports they engage in.
For example, a yoga enthusiast might be directed to yoga mats, blocks, straps, books, and music. Someone who is interested in golf would be directed to golf clubs, balls, and clothing. The online version could be similar, with information appearing on the retailer’s homepage that suggests sections of the site that might be appealing to the shopper.
Learn What Works
In addition to the ability to generate immersive experiences, technology can help you make these experiences better. Anytime you introduce a digital element into the shopping experience, you can use it to survey shoppers to determine how well they like it. For example, going back to the enhanced mirror for trying on clothes, part of the display can be a customer feedback interface. It could be as simple as choosing between one and five stars or choosing an icon that represents satisfied, dissatisfied, or moderately satisfied.
No matter how you choose to do it, it’s important to understand how customers are responding to your efforts to provide them with immersive experiences. The more detailed the information can be, the better. Simple feedback is good, but specific feedback is better. For example, perhaps the algorithm for choosing clothing items to wear together doesn’t work very well. That’s good information to have so you can make it more satisfying for shoppers.
You can use this kind of information to improve your offering. Fast Company suggests a question to determine how well you are doing with your immersive efforts: “Are we positively capturing the customer’s attention at every turn of their trip through our stores?”
Immersive Shopping Technology
The following technologies are driving the immersive shopping trend.
VR puts customers into an environment that appears entirely separate from the ordinary world. For example, a furniture retailer might provide a VR environment that presents a home with furnishings in it so customers can see what they look like in use rather than just on the showroom floor. Such an environment can have features like clickable icons to enable shoppers to add items to their carts.
While VR provides an entirely separate reality, AR enhances the ordinary world. For example, a home improvement store might use a system that shows prices and other helpful information as an overlay on products throughout the store. The overlay might appear through the use of in-store screens or simply on an app on customers’ phones.
Another example of AR is an online shopping platform that enables customers to see how furniture would look in their own homes and takes into consideration measurements and integration with existing pieces. These examples push customer service to new heights, providing a higher level of service and support.
The metaverse refers to an entirely online world that may include work, social, leisure, and shopping opportunities. The shopping component can include many of the immersive experiences we have already mentioned. For example, a shopper might enter a metaverse site that contains a virtual showroom and virtual mirrors, along with an avatar that serves as a virtual shopping assistant. The metaverse might also include financial components, so shoppers can simply indicate they want the item, and the payment will be automatically subtracted from their account.
A virtual store in the metaverse might look something like the experience demonstrated in the following video.
Connecting With Customers Is Key
Technology solutions are sometimes characterized as being cold and unemotional, but retailers can use them to form emotional bonds with customers. Marketing Dive recently reported on a study in which “47% [of respondents] said tools such as VR, AR, and 3D content make them feel more connected to products when shopping online.”
The ability to understand, attend to, and anticipate customers’ needs is what creates relationships rather than just transactions. Such relationships provide numerous benefits for retailers, including greater loyalty, higher spend, and more frequent visits. Immersive experiences are the newest ways to support retailers in building those connections.