Does the average person want to buy clothes in virtual reality (VR)? Speaking for myself, it sounds rather cumbersome – having to put on a headset to search for a pair of pants, for example, rather than clicking through a few galleries. But not everyone agrees, especially those hoping to build a business with VR retail.
Enter Empire, an “immersive” retail startup that — to its credit — has already created virtual stores for brands like Bloomingdales, Dior, Ralph Lauren, and Lacoste. Launched in 2019, the idea came from one of the co-founders, Olga Dogadkina, who previously worked in luxury retail.
“It became clear to me that while e-commerce was the future of retail, 2D websites were just a tool that enabled an online purchase through a simple grid of images and text, but that the customer journey, storytelling and the ability to deliver the customer experience and product discovery that retailers’ physical stores strive for,” Dogadkina told TechCrunch in an email interview. “My other co-founder, Simonas Holcmann, and I launched Emperia to bridge the gap between the transactional nature of an e-commerce purchase and the personalized shopping experience that brands can cultivate in-store.”
from Emperia platform provides tools brands can use to create virtual experiences, including stores in VR. It integrates with existing e-commerce and inventory management software, tracking demographics, store activity, and purchases. With Emperia, brands can host live events with hosts guiding them through a virtual space, or customize exhibits and displays with 3D models and images of real-world inventory.
“Visitors” of Emperia’s virtual spaces don’t have to wear a VR headset, crucial. The platform – which can be embedded into existing websites – supports phones, laptops and tablets and requires no app or software installation.
“Using technology, Emperia aims to make virtual worlds the future of e-commerce, expanding its reach to new and future online shoppers, increasing brand loyalty and creating a completely new shopping experience,” said Dogadkina. “Working directly with retailers’ heads of e-commerce, Emperia solves user experience, data analytics and online engagement issues they’ve struggled with since e-commerce’s inception, delivering a new solution that leverages the power of virtual worlds to equalize and exceed the in-store customer experience and engage new audiences, who use their mobile devices as a retail getaway.”
Emperia collects a lot of data – data that not every customer may feel comfortable sharing. Studies show that many VR and “metaverse” platforms capture information that can be used to identify an individual, even if their data is anonymized on the device.
Dogadkina claims that Emperia only collects engagement, transactional and demographic data to give brands “visibility on how users navigate and engage with [their] virtual spaces.” She also notes that the data – which she claims is not personally identifiable – is kept for “a limited time”, in line with GDPR rules.
New verticals and better personalization tools are on the horizon for Emperia, says Dogadkina. The startup is also experimenting with machine learning, focusing on the technology’s ability to create visuals and 360-degree videos for product demos.
“This is an emerging industry, so a lot of market and user education is needed to introduce people to this technology and ensure brands can capitalize on its potential,” said Dogadkina. “As a relatively new industry, retailers need to look for multiple solutions to build and design their virtual worlds. While it is rich in solutions, from data to security, 3D modeling and digital tokens, to a wide variety of metaverse platforms, each with its own target audience and specific capabilities, the choices are all there, but getting them is a chore. integrate all together. That is one of the drivers behind our desire to bring complementary solutions under one roof.”
But will VR have staying power – and will retail in VR really catch on?
Maybe. According to an August 2022 report from PwC, about a third of consumers had tried a VR app in the past six months, and – of those consumers – 32% bought products after viewing them in VR. A separate one bearing of more than 2,000 US shoppers, taken in November 2022, found that about 37% planned to shop using VR and augmented reality.
On the other hand a Deloitte survey September revealed that only 5% of US internet users are expected to shop in VR before the 2022 holiday season. AltspaceVR, one of VR’s first social applications, highlighted the pressures platform developers face and was recently discontinued by parent company Microsoft.
Dogadkina chooses to believe the optimistic forecasts – and for good reason. Despite competition from suppliers such as Obsess and ByondXR, Emperia has 45 customers across industries including fashion, beauty, luxury and sports. It has also attracted a $10 million Series A investment led by Base10 Partners, along with Daphni, Sony Ventures, Background Capital, Stanford Capital Partners and Concept Ventures.
Emperia expects to increase its workforce from 40 to 120 by the end of the year.
“The pandemic has certainly accelerated retailers’ awareness of what immersive, technology-driven e-commerce experiences could do and the role they could play in their sales strategy,” said Dogadkina. “The former marketing hype, which was campaign-dependent, ephemeral virtual space, has now become a permanent, long-term e-commerce solution, treated as a ‘flagship virtual store’. Retailers are much more experienced, with specific roles within those organizations that specialize in and oversee the creation and maintenance of these spaces, understanding that the virtual store is an entirely new experience, different from the physical store environment, which offers a real opportunity to expand the brand’s appeal to the shoppers of the future.”