Virtual Reality, the Evolution of Shopping, and the Future of Fashion as We Know It

If there are two things I deeply appreciate in this world, it is 1. shopping and 2. the internet. But here’s the kicker: I hate online shopping. That’s right, I said it. When shopping for clothing online, I hate the inconsistency of colors, not being able to identify textures, size discrepancies, and manipulation of pieces on the model. Unless you’ve seen the piece in person before you place your order, you don’t really know what you’re getting until it arrives at your doorstep. My standards might be too high, but if I’m going to spend my hard-earned money on a piece of clothing, I want it to be exactly what I expect.

Sure, online shopping is more convenient. For the most part you can access something at any time, from any place and it can become yours with the click of a button. You save gas, you save time, and in many cases you can save a lot of money. Return policies are fairly lenient, however, it is still inconvenient to deal with. When it comes to shopping online, I believe it still has a long way to go.

When contemplating the development of technology, I find that a great way to make predictions is to look at your problems and frustrations. Just last week I had to make a tedious phone call to Nordstrom’s customer service line and lugged two giant boxes to the post office to return two pairs of shoes. One of the boxes contained a pair of adorable Steve Madden lace-up flats, which turned out to be way too big. The other box housed a pair of black Hunter rain boots, just perfect for the fall and winter seasons, which were way too small. See the problem here? I’m apparently a size 6.5 in one pair of shoes and an 8 in another. This was not the first time I ordered my size confidently only to find it not fitting properly. More often than not, I’ve had to return or exchange items when shopping online due to issues like this.

After reading “The Inevitable” by Kevin Kelly, a book discussing the 12 technological forces that will shape our future, I found many of these concepts quite applicable to the world of shopping and fashion alike. Kelly’s insights on interacting were especially relevant, as it would be a solution to the problems such as my online shoe-shopping fiasco.

THE PROBLEM WITH ONLINE SHOPPING

TIME Magazine released an article called “What’s Wrong With Online Shopping,” which listed price inconsistency, signage inconsistency, inventory inconsistency, the coupons game, customer service inconsistency, delayed shipping cost information, and the creepiness of being watched all the time. Inconsistency is a huge issue in all areas of e-commerce, effecting the overall experience consumers have, causing frustration and stress.

However, one of the biggest problems I have with online shopping, as I touched on before, is not being able to test-drive the product before purchasing it. Sure you can go out into the world, the nearest location where that product is sold, and try it out before placing your online order. But doesn’t that eliminate the entire concept of the convenience of online shopping? What if the product your searching for is not sold in an area near you? What if you don’t have the time? What if you simply can’t be bothered to do this extra research, avoiding making the purchase to begin with? I have found myself in all three of these situations.

What if there was a world where you could try things on from your own home without the tedious task of driving to a store or post office to return it? Without having to spend money before knowing this purchase is right for you, with great customer service and personal styling tips from your very own bedroom. This is what virtual reality can bring to the future of e-commerce.

WHAT EXACTLY IS VIRTUAL REALITY?

Kevin Kelly describes virtual reality (VR) as “a fake world that feels absolutely authentic.” Whether you experience it through special glasses, a headset or floating touch screens, virtual reality is an experience in which technology allows us to have a “strong sense that you are physically present in this virtual world, in large because you can do things — look around, freely move in any direction, move objects — that persuade you that you are ‘really there.’”

According to the Virtual Reality Society, “NASA, the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation funded much of the research and development for virtual reality projects. $80,000 was contributed by the CIA for research purpose to Sutherland.”

Before the media picked up on the idea, “Michael McGreevy, a computer scientist started to experiment with VR technology as a path to advance human-computer interface (HCI) designs. HCI still is a domination factor in VR research.” This began in 1984 and the term Virtual Reality wasn’t coined until 1987 by Jaron Lanier. Virtual reality has come a long way since then, and is only recently becoming an experience which is perceived as truly realistic, therefore, is becoming more and more prevalent in our daily lives.

VIRTUAL REALITY AND ONLINE SHOPPING

With the development of virtual reality technology, it only makes sense for it to be incorporated into industries like fashion and retail. An article by Kate Abnett from Business of Fashion titled, “Vision Quest: 3 Technologies Shaping the Future of Fashion,” states how “even today, 13.3 percent of consumers make a transaction or sign up to communications from a brand while viewing VR content, compared to 5 percent for non-VR experiences.” Proving that this technology is already starting to be preferred by consumers.

How exactly would virtual reality expand the business of e-commerce? How would it provide a solution to problems like my shoe-shopping fiasco? Abnett states that “according to Matteo Caraccia, managing director of Big Sky Studios, which is producing a VR marketing campaign for UK department store Selfridges, there is a concept called ‘v-commerce,’ allowing consumers to shop from home, using a VR headset to ‘actually see the item they’re buying; you can walk around the item, lift it up.’” Entrepreneur states that “tools that enable sizing will be a big trend such as augmented reality enabled Virtual fitting rooms, 3D body scanners; Software tools that compare sizes across brands, creating avatars and sizing them are some of the approaches being used by the e-commerce players.”

Not only is virtual reality a visual experience, but it can be sensory as well. Currently the technology to be able to feel things through virtual reality is not fully developed, however, is a definite possibility for the future. This way, not only will you be able to try clothing on in online dressing rooms through virtual reality to see how they look. You will be able to feel how the clothing fits on your body. Is the sweater itchy on your sensitive skin? Are the shoes too tight to walk comfortably in? This will put an end to sizing issues as well as the mystery of texture when shopping online.

VIRTUAL REALITY AND IN-STORE SHOPPING

Virtual reality is completely applicable to brick-and-mortar shopping as well. They are especially prevalent to the fashion industry too, as fashion brands are not just selling a product, they are selling a feeling, an experience, or as Abnett put it “a dream.” This concept can incorporate virtual reality technology very effectively, and many companies have already been applying it. Abnett states that “The North Face and 7 For All Mankind have both created VR-enabled films, while Dior and Tommy Hilfiger have installed headsets in stores, which transport headset-wearing shoppers in pre-recorded catwalk shows.”

This technology will change fashion and the experience of shopping as we know it, giving fashion enthusiasts the opportunity they’ve always dreamed of, as well as enlightening those who may be unfamiliar with that world. Not only will someone be able to see pieces hanging on the racks in the store, but they will be able to feel the energy of the runway, watch the movement of the fabrics, and hear the excitement engulfing them in the audience. I believe this experience will not only ignite a desire to purchase, but a desire to express oneself through clothing unlike ever before.

The fashion industry moves so quickly, with trends coming in and out in an instant. Consumers are always on the hunt for the next big thing. “In stores, you have to bring the customer newness and not just show clothes on the rack and wait until they buy,” says Daniel Grieder, chief executive officer of Tommy Hilfiger. “This is something customers will talk about.”

Abnett also discusses how “for the moment, most of these initiatives trade heavily on the sheer novelty of the technology to generate positive PR, rather than the power of the content.” Adam Powers, chief experience officer at BBH states that “reality hits when people get bored of the platform itself and the quality of the content becomes the compelling thing.” This could be a problem when it comes to the development of virtual reality in this type of setting. It’s important to distinguish what is a true desire and what is just a shiny new toy.

PERSONAL STYLE

How will this development in technology affect personal style? I believe that digital personal stylists will be a huge component in both the future of fashion, as well as the future of retail. As someone who has worked in retail, I have experienced firsthand how stressed out many consumers become when trying to put together an outfit they feel comfortable and confident in. Many seek help from sales associates, personal stylists, and even friends and family, however, there are definitely those who are too scared to ask for help in the first place.

It only makes sense that with the incorporation of virtual reality technology in the fashion and retail industry, digital personal stylists will become a highly accessed service. According to Entrepreneur, this technology will provide answers to questions like:

1) Can I get real-time guidance on creating outfits from individual items?

2) Can we solve the eternal question of “What should I wear today”?

3) Can I get real-time opinions from their friends whether something suits me?

4) Can a fashion guru help style me every day?

This digital personal stylist could offer professional styling assistance from both in-store to at home services. In-store services would ensure that every shopper could experience a one-on-one personal styling experience without having to wait to be assisted. Every shopper would leave the store satisfied and confident with their purchase. This would increase the likelihood of returning and would boost brand loyalty and morale.

For those who need personal styling on a more day-to-day basis, a virtual reality personal stylist could be accessed from their own home. This digital stylist would not only be knowledgeable about trends, brands and design, but they would be fully equipped to answer personal questions tailored to body type, personal style, occasion, weather and the pieces already in someone’s wardrobe.

As someone who takes great pride in their personal style, I can’t help but be concerned about this concept and how it will effect personal style as a whole. What will this mean for the way people dress? Will more and more of the population have an elevated sense of style? Will everyone dress the same? Will having seemingly “good style” be considered less of a talent and more the norm of society? How will the fashion industry change? Will this alter the career paths of those with a natural fashion sense due to those styled by virtual reality taking their place?

As much as I want to believe that a natural understanding of style can never be replaced by a machine, it is a harsh reality that technology will continue to fill more and more aspects of our lives, replacing the need for certain skills and careers. I believe that a digital personal stylist will start off as a service only accessible to the elite, but as the technology becomes more common it will continue to reach a wider demographic.

VIRTUAL REALITY’S IMPACT ON FASHION MARKETING

No doubt is the world of fashion changing. With the development of virtual reality, smart clothes, dubbed “wearables,” and 3D printed clothing, there are an infinite number of possibilities in both the fashion and marketing world. The way we are shopping is changing, therefore the way we market needs to change. I believe these same technologies predicted to alter online shopping, will aid in the development of marketing as well. See a cute dress you think would be perfect for New Year’s Eve on a Facebook ad? What if you could use virtual reality to try that dress on then and there? Although, this could cause someone to avoid purchasing that product, I believe it would sell more products in return.

The experience of a product is what truly sells it. Taking that car for a test-drive, twirling in that sparkly dress, sitting on that fluffy couch in the furniture store. As we become more and more selective as we downsize the amount of products we purchase, switching to decisions based off of quality rather than quantity, it will matter less what a product looks like and more what it can do for you. How will it make you feel? How will it fit? How will it improve your life? I believe virtual reality will show us how.

IN CONCLUSION

One day, a girl like me will order two pairs of shoes online. She will open up her computer, her tablet, her phone, or some other device that has yet to be invented and will order two pairs of shoes. Maybe these shoes are an adorable pair of Steve Madden lace-up flats and a pair of black Hunter rain boots, just perfect for the fall and winter seasons. Maybe they’re not.

She won’t have to read pages and pages of reviews (at least I hope she won’t have to) because she can try them on in her very own bedroom. She won’t have to text her friends about their opinions, because they can be brought into the experience with the click of a button. No matter where in the world they may be, they can share their thoughts, face-to-face, as if they are in the very same room.

She won’t have to wait 4–6 business days only to find that these shoes don’t fit her extremely narrow feet with an abnormally long big toe. She won’t have to make a tedious call to Nordstrom’s customer service line only to be put on hold, and she definitely will not fall victim to the horrendous music they play while you wait for someone to take your call. She won’t have to lug two absolutely gigantic boxes to the post office because her shoes won’t be too big, or too small. They will be just right the first time around.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

My name is Michelle Dufflocq Williams. I am originally from Puerto Varas, Chile but currently reside is Missoula, Montana, where I am a senior at the University of Montana studying marketing. I am a beauty/fashion/lifestyle blogger and YouTuber, the President of Trendsetters at the U, and an intern for CollegeFashionista. My interest in fashion and the development of technology inspired this post, allowing me to gain helpful insight which I believe will contribute greatly to my career in fashion/digital marketing.