Brick-and-mortar versus online.
It's Frazier versus Ali. It's cats versus dogs. It's black against white.
At least, it used to be. Nowadays, retailers of all persuasions are of a mind that omnicommerce is an essential and effective part of selling to the modern consumer. The days of online shopping as a death knell of physical shopping are long gone, and it seems, for now, that in-store retail has nothing to existentially fear from its digital counterpart.
But what if the commerce continuum doesn't stop at physical and online shopping? What if there's another emerging category that could prove more destabilizing to brick-and-mortar retail than the most well-designed digital marketplace?
Look no further than eBay and Amazon, two companies synonymous with the rise of online shopping culture. However, their gazes and resources are increasingly geared toward a new frontier entirely — in-home commerce. Last week, eBay Australia, alongside department store group Myer, announced "the first-ever virtual reality department store" that will allow shoppers to browse a simulated 3D catalog of 12,500 products in what eBay is calling a "shoptical" — a VR-specific application that will respond to users' eyesight to select and manipulate products in the Myer listings.
That's right — there's no clicking, no speaking into an integrated microphone and no external controller. With a VR headset that can be as easy as a smartphone slotted into a holder, all shoppers have to do is look at an "Add to Basket" heading for a few seconds and off go their items to their carts.
At (pun intended) first glance, eBay's Virtual Reality Department Store might seem like just another tech gimmick in a sea of like innovations, but Jooman Park, managing director of eBay Australia and New Zealand, had some choice comments on why this particular format of shopping isn't just an extension of existing eCommerce methods but rather a brave, new retail world entirely.
"It’s been important to us that we don’t just replicate the eCommerce experience in a virtual environment," Park said in a statement. "We are taking the best elements of traditional retail and expanding on them to improve browsing, selection, personalization and efficiency.”
The first half of Jooman's comments are key. The VR store isn't meant to be a website or mobile portal transformed into 3D. In its ideal form, it'll be another state of retail — the plasma to the traditional solids, liquids and gases — and that should worry B&M greatly.
Why? Because consumers have already shown a great deal of preference for this kind of in-home shopping experience that doesn't require them to sit in front of a computer or tap away at a smartphone screen. While it's a decidedly un-VR experience, the Amazon Echo has also introduced the average consumer to a new way of shopping with nothing but their voices and linked Amazon accounts. Add in the growing number of Dash Buttons that turn a push into bought-and-delivered household goods, and the entire home starts to become an interactive and personalized place to shop — even more so when Amazon's newest line of programmable IoT Dash Buttons start to gain traction in consumer applications.
Therein lies the danger to B&M retail of this new and not-yet-settled area of the home as a shoppable area. Physical merchants are years into a battle with online brands over who can provide a more convenient and customer service-oriented experience. If they also have to wage a war against Echo-like devices, VR marketplaces and whatever comes next to convince consumers that they actually have to leave the house to do their shopping, that might be too hard of a sell for a population of shoppers that expect retailers to do the heavy lifting and come to them instead.
After all, the average shopper will always take the path of least resistance to get what they want. And if they can do that with their smartphones when they're out and about and with their voices or VR-assisted eyes when they're at home, there's increasingly less room for B&M retailers to insert themselves into the conversation.