How global retailers are using immersive experiences in stores

Popular wisdom has it that people remember 10 per cent of what they hear, 20 per cent of what they read, but 80 per cent of what they see and do. A number of academic studies over the years have backed this up, revealing that the closer a commercial situation is to real life, the more likely consumers are to remember it, respond to it – and, presumably, buy whatever it is on offer.

So here we are in the era of immersive reality, which includes augmented reality (overlaying digital content on the user’s physical environment), virtual reality (putting the user into a totally digital environment), and mixed reality (which blends the real and virtual worlds). In retail, beginning with brand experiences, immersive reality is increasingly used for product trial.

Try before you buy

While AR applications such as Heinz’s recipe booklets on sauce bottles date back to 2010 or so, 2016 was something of a watershed year. The now L’Oréal-owned Modiface created “Tap and Try” for Sephora, at that time the first in-store virtual makeover mirror. A raft of competitors followed, such as Image Metrics, Holition and Hi MirrorPlus.

Smart mirrors and smart fitting rooms started making appearances in the likes of Ralph Lauren and Nordstrom, providing customers with pairing options, alternative colours, cuts and sizes delivered by store associates at the push of a button.  

Three years on, luxury apparel retailer FarFetch’s latest London pop-up store provides connected clothing racks, touch-screen-enhanced mirrors and sign-in stations, where customers can search their purchase history and bucket list. Now smart mirrors and in-fitting-room payment provision have become commonplace. 

Still in apparel in London, in July this year VF Brands – owner of Vans, The North Face and Timberland among others – launched Axtell Soho, which aside from AR and touchscreen applications features 3D virtual mannequins displaying seasonal looks. Customers are offered control over the setting for these models and styles through lighting and other visual effects to give them an idea of how the clothes move and interact with the body – no need to try them on.

Back to 2016, and Ikea piloted virtual kitchens via an app which combined 3D renderings with a VR headset, giving customers the ability to customise one of three different kitchens by changing the colour of cabinets and drawers before taking a virtual tour of their creation.

In early 2016 Samsung launched its 837 flagship in New York City, a shop where you can’t buy things. The store is rather a digital playground which gives early adopters the opportunity to test the latest Samsung gear. One highlight is the virtual reality tunnel is designed to show you everything Samsung’s Gear VR headset can do.

Sound and light shows

Last month, smart speaker manufacturer Sonos teamed up with Ikea for an immersive walk-through theatre experience in London’s Soho called The Sound Affect to showcase new Sonos Symfonisk speakers. Aimed at getting attendees to discover how sound affects their emotions and surroundings, multiple spaces are used to represent specific parts of the human brain using new Sonos Symfonisk speakers. 

Rival Bose’s Imaginarium features a thunderstorm experience designed to showcase the Bose Lifestyle 650 Home Entertainment system by having customers not just hear but feel the product quality via audio, projected visuals and motion sensors combining to produce the component sounds of a thunderstorm. Each component – from rain droplets to the clap of thunder – creates an element of surprise and places the customer at the centre orchestrated through their own physical movement. This experience, plus an AR experience designed for headphones, helped the store achieve a 28 per cent increase in footfall in the first six weeks of trading and an average 200 per cent increase in dwell time.

But it’s not just about the brand experience.

Sportswear manufacturer Puma has taken product trial a step further with its recently opened Skillcube in New York City, which provides what it calls “phygital experiences”. Designed for the competitively minded, Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton and footballers Antoine Griezmann and Romelu Lukaku host coaching sessions that transport store visitors trying on footwear to either to a virtual football stadium or a virtual disused warehouse. A multi-sensory environment involving 270-degree floor-to-ceiling LCD content screens, graphic projection, motion-sensing devices, dynamic lighting and surround sound as well as a high-quality multi-sport synthetic turf floor is used for the athletes to put customers through their paces testing out the shoes.

Spanish automotive brand Seat’s Westfield London store goes beyond the still relative novelty of putting cars in shopping centres. The company sees the new store as the “future of car sales” and it is certainly doing sales differently. A “test drive” takes a would-be car buyer virtually through the streets of Barcelona, past its splendid and iconic architecture. 

Just a few weeks ago, cycling, rowing and fishing brand Shimano opened an Experience Centre in the Netherlands. Designed to create an immersive outdoor-indoor experience, the centre features a social hub and learning space to complement its experiential product showroom. Cyclists can trial bikes in a VR booth which mimics different terrains and inclines across mountains, forests, fields, and plains, and features wind and sound effects. Fishing enthusiasts can try out different fishing rods in an attempt to catch a virtual fish in a mini fishing booth, while also saving the locations of their favourite fishing spots and syncing them to their Fish Shimano app. Rowers can race in a rowing simulator. 

Conversion benefits and beyond

Brand experiences walk the line between being immersive and frustrating if a shopper is purpose-driven. Product trial is purposeful digital, even if the expense of the fitout may limit distribution to a few flagship sites.

L’Oréal’s Modiface mirrors have increased sales in their locations by more than 30 per cent. Apparel brand Rebecca Minkoff tripled sales after the installation of smart mirrors. Such technology can also indicate which products are and aren’t getting conversion, such as a jacket that goes into the fitting room frequently but has less sales conversion than other jackets.

And user data can be captured through use of the apps, such as specific product preferences. 

So rather than technology for its own sake, immersive reality product trials have to be used to increase conversion, which is what retail is all about in the end.

Norrelle has 20 years’ experience in retail, category, channel and customer, working in and with global retailers, manufacturers and consulting houses. Contact Norrelle on 0411735190 or email


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