Could virtual reality save the high street?


Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past week or two, you’ll be aware that a host of Christmas adverts from retailers have graced our screens — and in abundance. Though the likes of M&S, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Burberry, Harrods, Currys, and even online retailers like, are getting in on the action this year with engaging adverts, online PR, social media campaigns, it’s still John Lewis that’s managing to stand out. It’s not just for the iconic soundtrack or heart-warming storyline this time, but for the brand’s adoption of new technology that encourages consumers to come into its stores.

As part of its Buster the Boxer Christmas campaign, the retail giant has created a virtual reality (VR) experience using Oculus Rift technology, available in its Oxford Street flagship store and a few other selected locations across the country. Customers have the chance to jump on a trampoline whilst being transported to the virtual snowy Chrismassy garden featured in the TV advert launched last Wednesday.

The Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset kitted out with Leap Motion detection, which works with a Kinect camera that picks up your hand movements. As a result, you can interact with the animals as if they were beside you, while enjoying a bounce on a trampoline in a shop.

Never one to leave the kids out, John Lewis has also designed a 360° experience for under 13s, thanks to Google Cardboard headsets. Another smart addition to the campaign is the code that you’ll be given after you’ve been bouncing, which enables you to download your own experience when you get home. It’s the gift that keeps on giving and a great way to draw people into the store at a time when consumers are spoilt for choice by online retailers.

Experiential retailing is growing in popularity with brands, and often with virtual reality or augmented reality (AR) at its core. Thomas Cook has developed VR holiday demonstrations, Volvo teamed up with Microsoft to create a VR showroom and L’Oreal Professional sales reps use AR to illustrate display stands for hair care products. Samsung has gone a step further by introducing a new flagship store in New York that doesn’t even have products available, but purely pushes experiences, of which VR is a part.

Could VR and AR be the weapon for the high street to finally get one over online retailers? When once it looked like a landslide victory for team online, uses of innovative technology show the fight is well and truly back on – albeit, a very different fight than it was before.

Though I’m not sure how much the offer of trampolining with UK wildlife is impacting my purchasing of John Lewis goods, there’s no doubt that this foray is helping to put virtual reality on the retail map. In years to come, will we be heading out to stores for brand experiences, then rushing home to do our shopping? This topsy-turvy idea could very much be our (virtual) reality if Buster’s Garden is anything to go by.