The Virtual Reality of eCommerce

eCommerce is growing rapidly, resulting in the closing of a number of brick-and-mortar stores. It seems that the future of shopping is almost entirely online as eCommerce sales in the US soar into the trillions. One drawback to eCommerce shopping is the lack of an in-store experience. Online shopping does not allow for interaction with and trial of a product. Or does it? In order to work past this roadblock, several big name companies have been working to develop technology that takes online shopping to the next level. The answer to the problem lies in virtual reality. With VR technology, customers have the ability to feel as if they are in a physical store location. They are also able to interact with 3D models of products similar to how you are able to in real life. Although widespread eCommerce VR implementation is farther off, businesses have already begun testing virtual reality shopping worlds.

 

Alibaba Takes Strides

Recently, Chinese eCommerce giant Alibaba revealed their VR shopping model. In November 2016, at their Singles Day shopping festival, they allowed consumers to try their Buy+ virtual shopping experience. The technology allowed its users to travel through a virtual land that began with a taxi ride through New York City before being dropped off at the Macy’s store. In the store, consumers were able to interact with employees and browse through a number of products. They could purchase items right then and there, without taking the headset off. This is exactly how the eCommerce platform’s lack of in-store experience is overcome.

This technology is truly remarkable, allowing consumers to step directly into a realistic shopping world without moving their feet. Whether that scares you or excites you, you have to admit it’s pretty impressive. It draws the question of what eCommerce will look like five to ten years from now. Will people be sitting in their homes with headsets on, simulating an in-store shopping experience? It’s hard to say. It’s safe to assume that some people will be, but it may take longer for the practice to have a widespread effect as many consumers still prefer real in-store shopping rather than virtual in-store shopping. Either way, the hurtle of less personal shopping experiences online is being jumped.

 

Further Developments

Leap Motion, a company that focuses on hand-tracking technology, has made further steps toward a more realistic shopping experience online. They are developing hand-tracking technology that will allow users to interact with the elements of VR with their hands. This technology is designed to recognize hand movements and to parallel these movements in the VR world. For online shopping, this technology would allow consumers to interact with eCommerce VR products like never before, enabling them to swipe through and pick up items with just a couple movements of their hand.

Technology company Avametric and Google teamed up to create a virtual reality dressing room for Gap. Housed within an app they appropriately called DressingRoom, the VR experience allows users to see what Gap clothing products will look like on them. The app does so by having users choose their body type and then shows them a mannequin that represents their body, shown “in front of them” using the phone’s camera. They can then try on different sizes of a number of Gap clothing items to see how each size and product looks and fits on their body type.

eCommerce VR and the Future

It clearly seems that eCommerce is heading closer and closer toward incorporating the world of virtual reality in business. It is only a matter of time until the virtual reality shopping worlds and dressing rooms created by the likes of Alibaba and Gap are fine-tuned, perfected, and released to the world on a mass scale. This addition of virtual reality worlds in the eCommerce environment will allow for more personal shopping experiences online, including being able to “hold” and “try on” products and clothing before buying it. These advancements will elevate the already-booming business of eCommerce to even higher levels, minus the obstacles that keep some people from online shopping. But will the introduction of eCommerce VR create problems of its own? Probably, I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Platform Review: Does my Enterprise Business Need Magento 2?

Big, tough Magento. Its reputation precedes it as the powerful platform that rewards merchants with a ton of technical knowledge, and harshly punishes merchants without it. And, for now, Magento can seemingly afford to be selective about the kind of merchants they cater to. According to Builtwith, of the top 100,000 eCommerce sites on the web, 25% of them are run on Magento. Their next closest competitor comes in at around half of that. Magento’s largest merchants are said to do about 1 billion dollars in sales online in a year.

Magento has always been somewhat opaque to eCommerce business owners not trained in the coding arts. Now, with Magento 2 having hit the scene somewhat recently, even some experienced developers are narrowing their eyes. I usually recommend Magento sparingly, but when you need it, you really need it. If a potential client were to come to me asking if Magento 2 is the right move, I’d look out for the following aspects of businesses that need Magento.

 

Important Note: Magento comes in three editions. Magento Community Edition, which is free, Magento Enterprise Edition, and Magento Enterprise Cloud Edition. I’ve written this review focusing on Magento 2 Enterprise Edition, because that’s the one I’m most familiar with. Everytime I say Magento, assume that’s what I’m referring to, unless otherwise stated.

Magento 2

You Need Very Specific Customization or Functionality

This is the biggest reason for recommending Magento. Some merchants just have a set of unique requirements that no hosted platform, like BigCommerce or Shopify Plus, will be able to meet. Magento is self hosted. You host it, you secure it. They just provide you the CMS. As a self hosted solution Magento gives you, and your team, direct access to its infrastructure. You can do things on open source that hosted platforms can’t, because hosted platforms just can’t give that level of access.

Often, the need for something like this comes up in relation to a very specific product, or method of ordering, which is outside the norm for most eCommerce stores, but it can apply to almost any client requirement. If you want to build the fastest site in your industry, you can build a site that scores 100 on every speed test. If you want a detailed product customizer, your customer can visualize their bespoke order down to the tiniest accessory. If you can dream it, you can do it on a self hosted platform. With the right development resources, of course.

There are other options for self hosted if your requirements aren’t compatible with a hosted solution. Opencart is one many people use, but if you’re already going to spring for champagne, you might as well get the good stuff. If you need open source, because of functionality requirements, you should be looking at Magento.

 

You Have Development Resources on Staff

The flip side of that endless customization, is the fact that Magento is not easy to make updates and changes too. While the hosted platforms sacrifice some level of customizability for greater accessibility, Magento does the opposite. That means you’ll be responsible for things like load testing your servers, making sure your security patches are up to date, and almost any changes you make to the site will need to be made through code. If you don’t have a developer on staff, and you’re not technical, Magento will be outside of your wheelhouse.

Of course, you can hire a digital agency to be your support and maintenance partners. They can take care of the pre-planned stuff, like scheduled updates and layout changes. But this is still only a stop-gap solution. What if something breaks over the weekend? In the end it’s better to have a Magento developer on staff if you’re going with Magento.

 

You Can Afford to Pay More for More Features

Magento has one of the most extensive lists of features of any eCommerce platform on the market. To try to go through them all would be too much. Magento shines in customer segmentation, attribute management and sales promotions, just to name a few. Suffice it to say that this features list is the reason Magento’s rates are high, and why most of their customers are large companies. Magento’s license, which ranges between 22K and 75K, is a one time fee each year. To find out where your company will fall in that range you’ll have to contact Magento. Broken down, the cheapest license is in line with the rates for Shopify Plus and BigCommerce Enterprise month to month, but anything beyond that certainly puts Magento in a more expensive category. Not only that, but there are hosting fees and the aforementioned developer’s salary to think about as well.

If the feature you need isn’t on that features list already, chances are good someone has built a plugin. Magento has an incredibly wide array of modules and plugins available from the Magento marketplace. Because Magento is an open source system, it’s much easier for developers to create even the most niche plugins. This open source ecosystem means it’s very likely the Magento Marketplace will have an integration available for the 3rd party system you happen to use. That saves you time and money on developing something custom.

Magento 2

You Have a Vision for Custom Design

Magento does not offer any templates for Magento 2, which isn’t as big a deal as it sounds. After all, if you’re going to shell out the money to build and maintain a Magento site, you probably have the budget to get something custom designed as well. The custom design tools on Magento are incredibly flexible, if you know how to use them. If you need Magento purely for the functionality, and don’t care how your site looks, just know that Magento itself isn’t going to offer you a cheap option when it comes to design. However, there are plenty of third party companies, like Theme Forest, which offer templates compatible with Magento 2.

 

Magento is not for the faint of heart (or the shoestring of budget). But if you’ve recognized your company in any of the above sections, it may be well-worth the investment. A move to Magento is a serious conversation that you should have with an eCommerce professional, however there are a few ways to dip your toe in the water. As I said in the beginning of this review, Magento Community is free to use. Why not start by building a small store there to see if the platform works well with your eCommerce team? You can always move onto Enterprise later. Much more info can be found on the Magento community forums. If you’re an established business, with unique requirements, and a good base of technical knowledge on your team, you should have Magento 2 on your short list.