The sense of touch is important to the human experience. Canadian writer Margaret Eleanor Atwood (@MargaretAtwood), in her book The Blind Assassin, wrote, “Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.” Historically, the sense of touch has differentiated brick-and-mortar stores from online retail. Journalist Cara Salpini rhetorically asks, “What’s the purpose of a store?” Her answer: “Technically, it’s to offer up products to customers and, more importantly, get them to buy those products. But in recent years, the purpose of a store has been brought into question as startups and traditional retailers alike explore what has become the pinnacle of physical retail: experiential retail.” The coronavirus pandemic brought experiential retail to a sudden and grinding halt. Salpini explains, “For many, it’s seen as the savior of brick-and-mortar retail, but the coronavirus outbreak has changed a lot about shopping in the short term, and it’s unclear how much will stay changed in the long term. When will customers get excited about laying down on a mattress again? What will be the reason to keep hanging out in beauty stores when product testers aren’t accessible?” The pandemic has many retailers asking, “How can I provide customer experiences in a no-touch environment?
The importance of customer experience
Kevin C. (KC) Karnes (@kc_karnes) writes, “Studies show experiences make us happier than physical objects. Studies also show companies that prioritize experiences over products/features have a 200% greater likelihood of referrals and 25% more customer loyalty. So no matter what business you’re in, delivering a delightful user experience to your customers might be one of the most important things you do.” In the aftermath of the pandemic, when fear of touching things others might have handled, providing experiential retail could prove difficult. The answer for some retailers could be found in virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), or some other form of immersive experience. Karnes notes, “An ‘immersive experience’ pulls a person into a new or augmented reality, enhancing everyday life (by making it more engaging or satisfying) via technology. They often use one or more technologies linked together.” When the pandemic is over, Salpini asserts, “Some customers will, no doubt, head back to physical stores. And when they do, retailers with highly experiential spaces will have to have a strategy for that space, and a way to limit touch engagements.” Karnes discusses five types of immersive experiences retailers might consider. They are:
1. Augmented Reality. Karnes writes, “Augmented reality uses technology (like a camera and screen on a smartphone) to add a computer-simulated layer of information on top of the real world. AR can be considered an enhancement of the world around you — rather than creating a new virtual world like VR, it simply adds (or subtracts) information that is already there.”
2. Virtual Reality. Karnes explains, “Virtual reality immerses the user inside a digital simulation they can interact with.
Stimulating as many senses as possible is key to ensuring the user feels like they really are in that virtual environment. And most VR experiences (but not all) will use special hardware to do so.”
3. Mixed Reality. According to Karnes, “Mixed reality (MR) is an enhanced version of AR, tying in elements of VR as well. It often integrates entire virtual objects into the real world vs. simply adding information, with the goal of creating an even more immersive experience than AR could alone.”
4. Digital Twins. “Digital twins are near-exact virtual models of real-life objects, processes, or systems,” Karnes explains. “They are most commonly used in manufacturing or engineering to simulate physical things for the purpose of optimizing or studying how they behave before building them. … But other applications include healthcare or even digital recreations of entire cities.”
5. 360º Content. Karnes writes, “360º content is a photo or a video you can ‘explore.’ As the name suggests, 360º photos and videos are shot in every direction at the same time and let you rotate the viewing angle to see what’s ‘around you’ as you view the video/picture.”
Which of these technologies is used to provide the best customer experience depends on the unique characteristics of each business sector. For example, digital twins are great for the manufacturing sector and 360º Content is well-suited for the real estate or recreational vehicle sectors. For the retail sector, augmented reality and virtual reality are likely to play a more important role.
The benefits of immersive retail customer experience
Jolina Landicho, content marketing manager at Avenew Media, writes, “In a marketing world where playing to people’s emotions is a significant aspect of the machinations, VR’s ability to inspire emotional stimuli is something marketers should take full advantage of once they are able to fully utilize the tech. … Companies are beginning to realize the vast potential of the technology, and as the price for VR headsets continually drop, more and more people can have access to the game-changing potential of VR experiences.” If retailers want to use VR to draw customers into the store, ensuring the equipment is sanitized for each customer is obviously an important requirement. Why would retailers want to go the all trouble and expense to get involved with VR? Victor Bogomolov, CEO and co-founder of VR-Tigers.com, suggests three reasons. They are:
1. First-hand experience. Bogomolov explains, “Reviews, photos, and descriptions are great, but it is a personal experience that has the biggest value. And it is not about retail only. Virtual reality is an ultimate tool to visualize what you want the customer to see.”
2. Next-level customer service. We’re all familiar with chatbots; however, Bogomolov believes VR can take customer service to an entirely new level. He explains, “Virtual reality can uplift and improve the customer support we have today. Here’s how: [By providing a] personal touch, … immersive technology allows the customer to have a face-to-face conversation with the agent. Today it is likely to be an avatar, but in the future, you may see the agent in the flesh. [VR can also be used as a] visual aid … to convey ideas through distance.”
3. Added value. According to Bogomolov, “Virtual reality is what can make the customer’s experience with your company more entertaining and engaging. Unlike many other solutions, VR applications can be very interactive. … Grant your customers new impressions, give them a chance to feel extraordinary emotions, let them have a unique VR experience. Happy customer — thriving business. Contributing to the customer experience is a must for every company that wants to stay on the market. And one of the best ways to do it is virtual reality.”
Augmented reality can also be used to improve customer experience. One of the benefits of AR over VR in the post-pandemic period is that a customer’s smartphone can be used, rather than expensive VR equipment, to provide the experience. Hagai Shaham explains, “Augmented reality is transforming the way marketers and businesses interact with their customers. The new augmented reality customer experience techniques are engaging consumers and enhancing the product or service being offered. … Through new mobile technology, AR has emerged as an innovative tool that allows brands an almost unlimited opportunity to interact three-dimensionally with consumers on their mobile devices. Augmented reality customer experience is a new digital experience that transforms the customer journey into an immersive visual interactive experience.”
“Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality mean that we experience something that isn’t there,” explains Harikrishna Kundariya (@eSparkBiz), co-founder and Director of eSparkBiz Technologies, “but it feels like it is. This technology plays a vital role in experiencing things beforehand before we attain them in reality.” No one really knows how consumers will react once the coronavirus pandemic ends; however, smart retailers will prepare to offer consumers no-touch experiences to attract them into stores and keep them buying.
 Cara Salpini, “Please don’t touch: The future of experiential retail in the era of coronavirus,” Retail Dive, 8 June 2020.
 Kevin C. Karnes, “What is an Immersive Experience And How Do You Create One?” CleverTap, 17 May 2020.
 Jolina Landicho, “How to improve customer experience with Virtual Reality (VR),” Keap, 30 January 2020.
 Victor Bogomolov, “3 ways how VR improves the customer experience,” Medium, 6 May 2019.
 Hagai Shaham, “9 Ways Augmented Reality Customer Experience Boosts Sales and Satisfaction, TechSee Blog, 9 February 2020.
 Harikrishna Kundariya, “How AR and VR Will Enhance Customer Experience, readwrite, 9 December 2019.