Macy's China experiment shows the potential — and limits — of retail VR

Macy's this month made its debut appearance within Alibaba's Singles' Day in China. Well, sort of. Its appearance was only virtual.

macys dept store

Can Macy's app tell you what's available at its flagship store?

Credit: Mike Strand, via Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0

Macy's this month made its debut appearance within Alibaba's Singles' Day in China. Well, sort of. It participated via a virtual reality shopping tour app featuring Macy's New York City flagship, which bills itself as the world's largest department store.

But making this Chinese entry with a virtual reality app — here's a small sampling of it, via YouTube — is a decidedly odd move. Although virtual reality is a wonderful way for surgeons-in-training to safely explore a body or for pilots to learn the intricacies of flying a new aircraft, it's hard to see how it's either an efficient means of shopping or an impressive way to experience a department store.

Virtual reality is a tool that delivers experiences. That's not what online shopping is, at least not in this app. The beauty of e-commerce and m-commerce is in their efficiency. Done properly, they allow a shopper to visit, get what they need and get out as quickly as possible. Retail experiences are a wonderful way for in-store merchants to flourish, but they depend on the smells of different perfumes, the touch of delicate fabrics, the taste of a hot appetizer, the ability to flip through the pages of a book at the shopper's speed (not the awkward "here are a few chosen pages" from the likes of Amazon's Look Inside feature).

Online, though, retailers need to focus on speed, accuracy and intuition. Yes, intuition. That's when a well-thought-through site analyzes shoppers' choices and correctly guesses what they really want and makes that pop up instantly for them.

That all said, Macy's virtual reality app does accomplish some intriguing things. First, it gets them in the middle of Singles' Day, a seven-year-old promotion from Alibaba that has taken on a massive life of its own, generating more retail revenue than the equivalent of $9 billion in 24 hours.

Second, it is a nontraditional way of introducing Macy's to Chinese consumers who are already quite comfortable with online shopping. If — and this is a big if — this VR app gets enough attention and creates a demand for Macy's offerings that goes beyond what Chinese retailers are pushing, Macy's could follow up with traditional e-commerce offerings with the necessary inefficiencies.

And Macy's gets an intro to this massive market while avoiding all of the political and infrastructure costs of opening even one store in China. Macy's is also far from alone among Western retail chains trying to get into China without any brick and mortar. The U.K.'s Sainsbury was also in Singles' Day. And in a very related move, Macy's, Royal Ahold and Costco have been pushing promotions directly on Alibaba's Tmall.com.

It's certainly understandable why Macy's would view this VR move as a cost-effective to get in front of the Chinese market. Virtual reality in retail, however, has a very limited potential.

What kind of potential? Williams-Sonoma could effectively use a VR app to demonstrate cooking techniques, but it couldn't use it to do what is far important: show how light and flexible a specific line of cookware is. VR in 2016 doesn't communicate weight and resistance to breaking very well. And if it could generate movement resistance to simulate the strength of, let's say, a sauté pan, it wouldn't have much credibility.

A chain selling fitness equipment could offer a compelling VR peek into the vistas replicated by its running programs, but it couldn't deliver the pressure of an uphill climb. Such a chain could use such a VR program to supplement its physical treadmills, but that would be using VR to improve the product itself, not to make it easier to sell. (Yes, improving a product should make it easier to sell, but it won't improve an e-commerce experience.)

Could a furniture store use a software-controlled air pillow to accurately communicate the cushioning offered in various sofas or chairs? Yes, it could. But that would require a physical device and goes well beyond the limits of an app and a VR viewer. That interface limits retail tools to sound and visual, nothing else.

Macy's deserves points for leveraging VR as a curiosity item, a different way to get attention in a very expensive market. But for retailers to truly use VR is going to require a lot more functionality and creativity.

(If you want to complain about this column or just send ideas for a new column, please contact Evan at eschuman@thecontentfirm.com.)

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