Virtual Reality, Coming to Retailers Near You?

Imagine a world where you can try on multiple outfits without pulling a single hanger off the rack. Even better, you don’t even need to take your outfit off. This futuristic idea is becoming a reality with the surge of virtual fitting rooms, otherwise known as VFR. The technology has been growing in popularity behind the scenes of major malls and retailers, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Guiyang Xiong, associate professor of marketing at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management and fellow researcher, Shuai Yang, associate professor and deputy dean of the business school at Donghua University, have spent the past three years researching VFR.

Do you want to learn more about the upcoming VFR technology? Xiong lends his expertise to teach us what we need to know about the upcoming technology and its impact on business.

What is a virtual fitting room?

“A virtual fitting room is a tool that allows consumers to try on items online or in-person, without taking off their clothes. Virtual reality differs from augmented reality in the sense that VR requires an avatar,” explains Xiong.

There are two ways that shoppers can create avatars. One possibility is by manually entering body measurements or choosing body types that mimic your own. You may also be able to upload photos of yourself so that the avatar has your facial appearance.

The second way to create an avatar is with 2D or 3D scanning technology. In this more sophisticated method, retailers will have a device that is able to scan a person and generate an avatar with the correct body composition. From there, shoppers can swipe through the catalog of merchandise and virtually try on apparel.

What are the benefits of using VFR?

“Virtual fitting rooms are more organized than traditional shopping. You can browse the catalog instead of going shelf by shelf. You can try on clothing in a short amount of time,” explains Xiong.

VFR is not only for clothing retailers. Another benefit comes from retails who sell cosmetics. Xiong adds, “When consumers try on cosmetics, it also increases efficiency because they don’t have to wipe off makeup.”

Aside from efficiency, VFR also benefits retailers because consumers are remaining satisfied during and after their shopping experience.

“Virtual technology can increase sales and save retailers revenue, after the initial purchase. Returns increase the cost for companies, so virtual fitting rooms may help reduce the return rates by helping consumers make a more realistic expectation of the purchase,” explains Xiong. Customer satisfaction is essentially gaged by the expected product performance versus actual product performance. If the difference is lower, there will be fewer returns.”

Additionally, VFR may allow shoppers to stay social while shopping. “Many of the virtual fitting machines have social media features so you can share your experience with friends,” says Xiong. This feature may also organically boost brand awareness for the retailer.

What are potential concerns about VFR?

One challenge in using VFR technology that Xiong and Yang discovered through their research is dissatisfaction through comparison. If shoppers see 2D photos of models wearing the clothing that they are trying on in a VFR, they may be less inclined to buy that product because it doesn’t look the same on their own avatar.

If retailers avoid showing typical 2D model advertising, sales could be bolstered and customers will have a more successful fitting room experience.

Another potential concern among consumers is data and privacy. Lack of acceptance and perceived risk of technology could deter people from embracing VFR. However, Xiong reminds us, “Online searching and shopping already reveal consumption patterns, which can predict who you are by gathering data points. With virtual fitting rooms, they do get more accurate information about your body shape and what you actually look like, but I don’t personally believe it increases privacy concerns.”

Accessibility is an additional factor for retailers to consider when marketing VFR to a large audience. “For consumers who can’t stand, it will be hard for them to use the more advanced body scanning devices. However, they can use their body measures to manually change an avatar,” says Xiong.

How will VFR continue to grow?

Currently, virtual fitting room technology is expensive. Upscale retailers are the primary companies adopting virtual technology for their shoppers. These include brands such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Burberry, and Zara. However, we also see companies like Alibaba entering the market and creating completely virtual reality shopping experiences.

 “The technology is developing very fast. I believe it will become cheaper and easier for companies to use and maintain within a short amount of time,” says Xiong. “When we started the research, only the basic virtual fitting room technology was available and there have already been many advances.”

Xiong acknowledges that the COVID-19 pandemic may influence VFR, saying, “Because of COVID-19, people are tending to shop more online than offline.” Research by First Insight has revealed that 65% of women said that they do not feel comfortable trying on clothing post-pandemic, which may drive adoption of virtual technology among retailers.

VFR is typically used in a business to consumer (B2C) model, but due to travel restrictions, Xiong explains that companies are using the technology in a business to business (B2B) model as well. He says, “Some clothing companies are using virtual fitting room technology to help them design clothes and demonstrate the garments on models when they can’t meet in person.”

“This is a great time for this technology to be more widely implemented. The biggest gap between online and offline shopping is the lack of ability to try clothing on and now that gap is closing,” says Xiong.

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Maya Bingaman
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