How Virtual Reality Can Help Retailers And Retail Workers

Cortney Harding
Jun 7 · 6 min read

As other pieces on this site outline, the near future of retail is certainly going to be exciting. But even in the present, there are simple technical innovations that can change not only the retail experience but the lives of some of our most marginalized and vulnerable populations — not as sexy as robots gliding around to bring you a perfectly coordinated ensemble, but powerful nonetheless.

Solving the Labor Market Mismatch

With a surging labor market and record low unemployment, retail chains are finding themselves strapped for talent to stock shelves, ring up customers, and answer basic questions. While Amazon Go might represent the future of how we buy groceries, these stores today remain largely novelties, and current self-checkout options seem to have been designed by people with no background in user design whatsoever. So we currently have a staffing crisis that creates a negative experience in stores, which drives customers away from brick and mortar retail and further into online shopping.

VR screening can help frontline workers practice interactions

At the same time, we are faced with populations being released from prison as much-needed criminal justice reforms start to attempt to undo the sins of the past. There is also a significant population of people coming out of addiction in the wake of the opioid crisis, trying desperately to get their lives back on track. When those people attempt to apply for entry-level jobs, they often find themselves stymied by the traditional application process of filling out forms detailing their work history, and are often disqualified because they have been out of the job market for a long period of time. The inability to find steady work can often drive people back into the underground market, leading to recidivism or relapse.

A military agency saved $100s of millions via VR training

What can technology do to change this? One possible solution is the use of virtual reality technology as an initial screening tool before an applicant moves on to another stage of the process. Someone could come into a store and put on a headset, and be given a series of problems to solve or customer interactions to handle.

For instance, someone interested in a clerk position could be asked to have a virtual conversation with an angry customer who is trying to return a product, or has expired coupons. If they can successfully choose the right answers, they advance along to the next phase of the application process, with the fact that they can already perform some of the basic tasks of the job in their back pocket. In some ways, this is akin to the blind auditions held by many orchestras — someone proves they can do the job before anyone knows what they look like or what their background is.

In VR, Quality Beats Quantity

Of course, the VR experiences have to be good in order to make a real difference. My agency, Friends With Holograms, has two core principles that guide our work making training experiences. We refined them as we created AvenueS, a voice-activated VR training experience for social workers we built for Accenture. The piece was a first-of-its-kind experiment, and has wound up succeeding beyond our wildest expectations, winning a Glomo Award at Mobile World Congress and being honored as a finalist for a SXSW Innovation Award. We believe that these design principles have a lot to do with this success.

The first design principle is that the experience must be as realistic as possible within the bounds of usability in the technology. In the training piece we built for social workers, the user sits across from members of a family in crisis and asks them questions. All of the characters are real people, and they are in a real home, which makes the experience true to life. Using animated characters like the ones you see in video games would destroy the realism and immersion, because users would know they are talking to a fake person, and thus fall right into the uncanny valley and be distracted.

A still from AvenueS, a VR training experience created by Friends With Holograms

This realism principle also extends to the methods of interaction. In the social work experience, participants use their voices to read questions out loud, which mirrors the way we actually communicate. We don’t use any external remotes or devices that might be unfamiliar to users, because when we interact with people in real life, we speak to them — we don’t point and click with a remote.

The second design principle is that the user must stay as immersed as possible to get the most out of the experience. There are some training experiences that start off strong but break out of the narrative to have users take a quiz — and as wonderful as it would be to be able to take breaks in real life to answer quiz questions before moving on, that’s unfortunately not the way the world works. Taking someone out of an immersive experience and putting them back in is jarring and can undercut the immersion. By keeping them in the story and making it as realistic as possible, learning levels will increase and the user will feel like they have lived in the experience when it comes time to mirror it in the real world.

There are limits to this. We originally wanted to the social worker piece to have notes written on a pad that the user would read from, which would be fairly true to life — however, as we tested with users, we found that those were hard to read, and had to position the questions as notecards. There is always a balance that must be struck, and in the end, usability wins out.

Soft skills training in VR can lead to a more collaborative and inclusive workplace

Great Retail Experiences Require Highly Trained People

Job screening is only one of many use cases for the retail environment. Poor managers can be the death of stores and chains, and immersive VR training can be used to help them be more effective at their jobs. We recently worked on a piece for DDI about workplace exclusion, and while it was meant for a more corporate environment, it could easily be applied to how store managers deal with their staff. In the VR experience, the user is systematically spoken over, shut down, and dismissed, creating a sense of frustration. After we screened it for one manager, he was so moved that he has since made an effort to call on men and women in equal numbers every time he leads a meeting. It’s a small thing, but the start of a much bigger trend.

VR Training Is Ready To Go — Now

There are other players in the space who are working on “harder” skills training pieces. STRIVR, for example, has built pieces for Verizon about training workers for store robbery scenarios, and for Walmart about handling busy shopping days like Black Friday. With the release of the Oculus Quest, a wireless headset that allows users to interact with a space without being attached to a computer, we already envision training store employees in physical skills like correctly lifting a box or stocking a shelf. Accenture has also been working on a use case where stores can use VR to visualize how products would look in different display configurations and then test with potential shoppers to see which works best.

There are lots of commercial and entertainment applications for VR and AR in the retail space, but those are topics for another day. The biggest return on investment in the short term will come when retailers start using VR to solve staffing issues and train employees resulting in a more satisfying and sustainable experience for shoppers — and also make a real impact on workers’ lives as well. By getting more people off the fringes and into the job market, we can create real opportunities for the people who need it most.

Near Future of Retail

Cortney Harding

Written by

Head of VR/AR creative and strategy at Friends With Holograms. Adjunct at NYU. Bylines Billboard, Ad Week. Speaker. Ultrarunner in my spare time.

Near Future of Retail

Exploring the leading edge of retail as the digital-physical convergence unfolds: AI/ML, VR/AR, voice, IoT, digital spaces. Sharing what we see and why it matters, and channelling our collective wisdom into practical guidance for those with a vested interest in this near future.

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