Will virtual reality make you buy more? Retailers are betting on it

Virtual reality springs up at the retail industry's marquee show, offering a glimpse of how we might shop in the future.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ben Fox Rubin
Ian Sherr
4 min read

Looking around a bright, carefully adorned SoHo apartment, you can see small diamonds floating in the air next to products. If you focus on a diamond long enough, a text box pops up telling you more about its neighboring object: a Flag Halyard Chair by Hans Wegner, $10,200.

If you tap the side of your Samsung Gear VR virtual-reality headset while focusing on the product, the view in front of you goes black and an "added to your bag" message appears.

You may not be in the market for a $10,000 chair, but you might be interested in a new way to shop for one. This virtual shopping experience, a demo developed by digital marketer SapientNitro with luxury retailer The Line, was among a handful of VR demonstrations at the National Retail Federation's Big Show.


Ever wanted to shop for a $10,000 chair in virtual reality? Someday soon, you can.


The trade association's annual conference, held this week at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, presented the latest tech and analytical tools for merchants. While VR wasn't front and center at the event, the demos showed that people may eventually shop for groceries in virtual store aisles or visit a new mall from their living room.

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Virgin Atlantic's VR demo includes smell-o-vision!

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

There's been a fair bit of buzz around virtual reality, which has the ability to transport you to another world, but much of the talk has been around video games and movies. The demonstrations at the retailers conference underscore the broader ways that virtual reality can change our lives, including how we might shop in the future.

For now, VR commerce, like much of the VR industry, is small and experimental, with a big focus on getting people to take their first taste.

"It's just the start," said Matt Lewis, manager of SapientNitro's Second Story group. "We're trying to tell our customers that this is the next wave of technology."

Still, he added, VR will likely first work its way into in-store uses, where it's easier to guide customers, and in the luxury market, where investing in more expensive tech like a VR headset makes more economic sense.

In one demonstration at Microsoft's booth, Virgin Atlantic flight attendants helped fit people with Homido headsets and headphones to let them get a feel for the airline's top-shelf Upper Class experience. A calm female voice guides the viewer through a visit to the airport lobby, a guided meditation and the view within the cabin. While someone watched the five-minute demo, a flight attendant would wave different scents under a viewer's nose and a Microsoft Band bracelet would track a viewer's heart rate.

The demo isn't for use with the general public and instead is used for wedding and travel shows to help Virgin Atlantic sales representatives present the experience with their airline in a fuller way than a brochure or YouTube video might.


A show attendee remodels a kitchen with the help of Intel and Capgemini.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

Fred Warren, a creative director for Microsoft who helped put together the demo, said that because so few people have tried VR, he sought to craft the video to draw people into the experience slowly instead of surprising them.

"It's about building people up," he said.

Using its RealSense 3D-sensing cameras, Intel showed off a kitchen remodeler created with consulting giant Capgemini. The experience allows people to reconfigure their kitchens and change appliance models, finishes and colors, then to put on a pair of VR goggles and see the end result. The concept isn't in use in the public quite yet.

One of the companies that has already begun using VR in its stores is Lowe's, whose VR technology was on display at this month's CES 2016 tech show in Las Vegas. The home hardware retailer created a tablet app and website with the help of Marxent Labs, offering customers a grid to lay out their homes and build their dream kitchen or bathroom using products Lowe's sells in its stores.

Once the room is complete, a shopper can put on a virtual-reality headset and see what the room would look like if standing in the middle. In front of the person could be a kitchen island, with a vase and flowers. Look to the left, there's a sink. Look to the right, there's a door.

So far, indications are that customers don't just enjoy this gee-whiz technology, they're also more likely to buy products for their homes after seeing them in VR.

Beck Besecker, Marxent's CEO, said he sometimes calls the service "Minecraft for Moms." But while most people know about that world-building video game, VR is still something new to most people.

"Nearly 100 percent of the people who try it," he said, "it's the first time they put one on."

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