It’s travelled from the cockpit to the store aisle, but we never have to look beyond our nose to get what will likely transform our shopping experiences for possibly decades to come.
Immersive learning, enabled through virtual reality software and headsets, is becoming a mainstay of major retailers, for a variety of scenarios. Originally seen as a method of safely and affordably placing workers in critical situations — think hospital operating rooms or robberies — more brands, from Walmart to Lowe’s, are finding virtual reality as a proven method for teaching old-fashioned customer service.
According to research by Capterra, nearly 33% of small and midsize U.S. businesses are expected use virtual reality in employee training by 2021, with projections it will get employees up to full productivity 50% faster than traditional instruction. Because the technology replaces actual in-store equipment and is getting pretty affordable — estimates are a virtual reality-ready laptop can run for $1,000 — the return on investment is justifiable.
By comparison, in early 2018, 32% of retail employees said they didn’t receive any formal instruction.
The Virtuals Are Coming!
In the past year, however, more retailers have implemented specialized employee exercises to improve their brand images and address sensitive customer-service issues, such as race and diversity.
Sephora in June closed all of its stores for one hour to perform “inclusivity workshops” for its associates following accusations of racial profiling. Starbucks similarly captured headlines in May when it closed 8,000 stores for an afternoon of racial-sensitivity training, after two African-American men were arrested at one of its stores while waiting for a friend.
But some merchants are extending their learning programs for a competitive edge. Ace Hardware in 2018 launched a program that combines hands-on education with e-learning to improve not just employee knowledge, but confidence.
Virtual reality and immersive training (referred to as immersive learning in the VR industry) are the logical next step for retail training, even for day-to-day encounters, as the technology becomes more available. A number of virtual reality tech companies, including Strivr, Regatta, Tailspin and Knowledge Anywhere, offer a range of instruction to improve customer experience soft skills as well as solve critical challenges, like sexual harassment.
Immersing Workers In Mobs And Window Dressing
Those retailers that have been using immersive training say it has improved worker engagement while reducing job-preparation times, translating to well-invested dollars. Among the examples:
- Walmart works with the firm Strivr to prepare workers for a variety of typical-to-unusual scenarios, including recognizing when the produce aisle is under-stocked, managing Black Friday mobs and responding to severe weather. Importantly, the scenarios also are designed to improve customer engagement — helping cashiers develop interpersonal skills and empathy with customers, for instance. Walmart has deployed the platform across 200 Walmart Academies and in September 2018 sent 17,000 Oculus Go headsets, used in the process, to all its stores in order to train 1 million associates.
- Verizon, recognizing that its stock of hot smartphone technology can make its 1,600 stores targets for theft, uses virtual reality to simulate robbery activities in actual stores. Frontline employees experience three to four scenarios, such as smash-and-grabs or thieves barging in with guns pointed, yelling instructions. In each scenario, the workers must respond in real time. Verizon stores are robbed fewer than 50 times a year, but the company said just one event makes the investment worth it. Workers have described the training as raw and emotional.
- Lowe’s has been using virtual reality to help its employees learn how to understand DIY projects better, right down to window fashions. The home-improvement chain has customized it “Holoroom How To” augmented reality platform, created for its customers, to carry employees through each step of a project, including how to use in-store equipment. The “Holoroom How To: Red Vest,” system instructs employees how to better serve customers and they learn from their mistakes without wasting materials. More than 90% of Lowe’s employees said the system helps them better serve shoppers, the company said.
- Chipotle uses virtual reality to guide its workers on how to prepare its menu items and clean the prep area — a critically important task in food service.
- Honeygrow, a Philadelphia fast-casual chain, uses immersive training during employee on-boarding to help new hires better adapt to the company culture.
Retailers evidently recognize that immersive learning takes the risk out of potential harmful situations, but more importantly, they’re showing that they take soft skills such as eye contact and listening seriously; this is great news for shoppers. Virtual reality workplace simulation may have proven itself in high-pressure situations such as sports, cockpits and operating rooms, but it’s low-risk effectiveness is no less important for managing everyday customer encounters.
Will virtual reality make a difference for the retail experience? It should, and in time everyday shoppers should notice.