Talking With: InContext CEO Mark Hardy on virtual reality in the retail experience

| by Judy Mottl
Talking With: InContext CEO Mark Hardy on virtual reality in the retail experience

One of the most exciting technologies coming into play in retail customer experience is the dawn of virtual reality. Providing consumers and customers with a unique shopping experience, and retailers with a tech savvy product marketing approach, VR is slowly but surely creeping into the retail environment.

To get insight on where VR stands today Retail Customer Experience reached out to Mark Hardy, CEO of InContext Solutions, which develops scalable cloud-based virtual reality shopping and retail solutions. Check out theirHIVE(Hi-Immersion Virtual Experience) lab, offering a hands-on demonstration of the latest in virtual reality technology and wearable gear, including the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.

Retail Customer Experience: Where is VR in retail today and what's your view on how initial deployments are going?
Hardy: VR has passed the infancy stage and I would say is now in the initial stages of getting rooted. Historically, VR was used for visualizing store layouts, shopping experiences or new product or marketing concepts. Now with web-based platforms and user-friendly interfaces, VR is more scalable and is becoming a collaboration platform both within, and between companies, enabling insights-based ROI decisions in near real-time, along with streamlining the in-store execution and communication process. VR technologies are allowing companies to reduce risk, eliminate unnecessary and unproductive labor and capital expenditures, and dramatically shorten time requirements to get to market — with the right idea. The impact for the average retailer is in the millions to tens of millions of dollars per year, and we have heard pay back scenarios counted in weeks or months rather than years.

RCE: What is the biggest challenge for a retailer in deploying VR?
Hardy: Like with all change, the biggest challenge for retailers is letting go of the old way. Technology is second nature to 20- and 30-year-olds, but senior management at most retailers are often from previous generations where it was common practice to physically set up their ideas in a store or mock center so they could envision how they would come to life. The problem is that it took time, investment and the decisions were often driven by subjective factors made on the spot. Even if the physical step is important to management, VR can provide the platform to iterate and evaluate the ideas upfront so that a physical store or mock center layout for the executive team becomes the final step, supported with real shopper insights that provide the ROI for objective decision making.  

RCE: From what you've seen being deployed what are some strategies or approaches to avoid?
Hardy: The biggest issue I have seen with the deployment of VR is to think that its application is solely for store layout and design. This type of thinking is archaic as it will never provide the tangible financial benefits VR can provide as an enterprise tool. Yes, there is value for the store design team, but the real impact is when VR is used across functional groups such as merchandising, category management, marketing, store brands, store operations and management. We have seen a merchandising team optimize category and store brand volume growth and household penetration by integrating VR into their category review process to compare different POG concepts. We are seeing another national retailer look to reduce millions of dollars spent annually in paper and postage alone to distribute their bi-weekly merchandising books that are sent to stores. We have seen a manufacturer save over a million dollars in production costs on one promotional initiative by knowing there was no incremental sales generated through a more expensive display vehicle. In each of these cases, the concept iteration and collaboration occurred in real-time, with decision critical insights garnered in days.  

RCE: What advice would you give to the retailer just embarking on VR?
Hardy: Let go of old paradigms and perceptions. The retail world around us is only changing faster and faster, which in turn is shaping new shopper expectations for retail experiences. Smart speed is a competitive advantage, so embrace tools that make you more nimble and knowledgeable, as you can'’t remain competitive without it. Like with all other technology, the cost of VR has come down with time and has become very affordable.

RCE: Where do you see VR in retail in three years and five years out and what expectations in terms of customer experience do you think it will deliver on?
Hardy: VR will be an integral part of commerce, both in the physical and digital shopper experiences. From a B2B perspective, VR will make companies more agile and financially efficient with both physical stores and e-commerce sites. While in B2C, VR will provide the ability to engage consumers with products in a more immersive manner than ever before even when not in a store, and we will see new advertising/media opportunities, which take advantage of the new touch points with consumers.


Topics: Augmented Reality, Customer Experience, Interactive / Touchscreen, Merchandising, Talking With, Technology

Judy Mottl

Judy Mottl is an experienced editor, reporter and blogger who has worked for top media including AOL, InformationWeek and InternetNews. She’s written everything from breaking news to in-depth trends. She loves a great pitch so email here, follow on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.

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