Virtually yours?

June 10, 2019

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Martin Newman

By Martin Newman

The Consumer Champion

One of the basic stepping stones to retail success is embracing an immersive experience for your customers to create an environment which offers all kinds of services, from the physical to harnessing the cutting edge of technology. So you can imagine how excited I was to read that John Lewis is pioneering a new piece of virtual reality equipment called “Visualise Your Space”. This will harness the power of VR to help customers purchasing furniture and homeware to understand how the products they might buy will interact with the rest of their domestic space.

I know it sounds gimmicky. Maybe a bit of a novelty. Maybe John Lewis won’t get it right, maybe they’ll stumble over initial problems that others will then be able to side-step. But I absolutely believe this is the sort of step, the sort of disruptive innovation, that retail companies need to be embracing, if they’re going to earn their places on the high street of the future.

Like some of the best ideas, Visualise Your Space is almost childishly simple and easy to grasp; kitchen specialists Wren even have special VR rooms in-store, allowing customers to experience their new kitchens weeks before installation. At John Lewis, shoppers enter the dimensions of the room in question at their home on to an iPad via an app, then drop in John Lewis products to see how they would look in situ. You can also change the colour scheme, if that’s another intention. There’s then the choice to see it as augmented 3D on the iPad, or to wear a VR headset which allows you to walk around the imagined room and examine it from a number of examples. The finished product is a simulation of how your room might look, complete with clickable links to take you to the products you’ve selected.

I’ve learned many things over my years in retail, but one is that customers are deeply visual individuals. Of course they are: they’re buying new items to put in their homes, and, even in the absence of this advanced VR technology, they’d already be imagining what those products look like. This allows John Lewis – and, in the future, I’d hope, many more retailers – to take them another step closer to that visualisation; to take away one more barrier to making the purchase.

Of course, they are taking a relatively cautious approach to this, as befits a fairly conservative and established brand. The technology will be piloted in three stores, Kingston, Cambridge and Horsham, in late June and early July, to judge the reaction of would-be consumers, the ease of implementation, and, in general, what difference Visualise Your Space makes to the overall retail experience. You can see the potential pitfalls already: what if the technology fails? Do they have back-up equipment, other iPads and headsets, so that they don’t end up offering a service on which they can’t make good? How convincing will the visualisations be, or will they look like some of those early computer-generated MTV videos in the mid-1980s? John Lewis is a high-end retailer, and people’s expectations will be high for a clean, convenient, seamless technology experience.

But these are just the risks that any innovator is forced to take. Someone had to try this kind of thing, to leverage the exponentially increasing power of AI more widely in the marketplace, and I, for one, applaud John Lewis for taking the plunge. They could have waited it out, used their bulk and customer base to sustain themselves while someone smaller, nimbler but perhaps more exposed took the risk, but instead they’ve identified an opportunity and really seized the spirit of carpe diem. It comes back to my much-repeated message: if you’re 100% sure, you’re 100% late.

Above all, John Lewis has chosen to see an opportunity where some would have seen only a problem, saying, “Customers tell us that uncertainty about what new products will look like in their home can make the decision making hard. This new technology will enable customers to be braver in their choices.” That’s exactly the buccaneering spirit that the high street of the future needs: operating on a combination of research and adat, but leavened by a dose of gut instinct and enough experience of the market to know, without thinking, what works.

Well done to John Lewis. This is a bold and innovative step. It’s child’s play to explain – anyone can understand why it’s a sensible move, and what benefits it could bring. I doubt I’ll be the only one watching closely. Surely, surely, other retail chains will be doing so as well.

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