Virtual reality is currently big news in China. While the high costs involved relative to perceived returns continue to deter many brands in the West from wholeheartedly embracing the technology, Chinese companies are racing ahead buoyed by a consumer base that is eagerly devouring all things VR. Once the limited realm of the gaming community, virtual reality technologies are now being used in China by everyone from art galleries to music festivals to hotels— and the fashion and luxury industries are keen not to be left behind.
That was the message that emerged from the Shanghai Fashion Web talk in late September with representatives from online shopping giants Tmall and JD.com both signaling that they were looking intently at how VR can help enhance their users’ experiences. Shanghai Fashion Web, held annually as a satellite event to the city’s Fashion Week, is intended by organizers Velvet to foster discussion on digital trends for the fashion and luxury industries, and VR was a key topic to at this year’s event.
Persephonie Zhu, global business development manager for Tmall Apparel, signaled Alibaba’s desire to lead in VR just as it has in so many other sectors with a discussion of the Taobao Maker Festival. In July this year, the offline event brought together over 70 “up-and-coming” merchants specializing in innovative products, while the parent group used the opportunity to debut its own Buy+VR technology. “It’s all about showing how we can enhance the shopping experience,” explained Zhu. “If you put on the VR helmet, it’ll feel like a real shop, a physical store just in front of you. You can pick out all the apparel that you want and [you’ll be able to] see the visual results for how you will look using VR.”
An increasingly young Chinese consumer base—and one with ever strengthening purchasing power—is part of the reason behind Tmall’s move into VR, as is this cohort’s apparent willingness to adopt new technologies faster than their counterparts in other countries. Zhu pointed to figures showing that 50 percent of transactions taking place in China happen through a mobile device, compared to a global average of just 35 percent.
This was a point echoed by Thibault Villet, CEO and Partner at Mei.com—an online shopping portal backed by Alibaba. “Chinese customers are really embracing it and on top of that, the young are really responding to it,” he said of VR and new technologies. “Just look at the kids when you go to the mall here— anything with VR, the kids are involved. The technology is coming faster; China is leading it in some respects.”
Not that Villet sees VR replacing traditional shopping experiences just yet. “It won’t be the end of offline, but it will complement the journey and create new ways to shop and new ways to socialize around shopping,” he predicted.
Unsurprisingly, observers can expect to see Mei.com ramping up its usage of VR in the coming months. “It’s really going to come and come strongly,” Villet said of VR, pointing to the backing of companies such as Alibaba as a sign that the technology won’t be allowed to become merely a short-lived fad. To this end, Mei.com is increasingly looking at how best to utilize VR for its services. “We created a VR video, which was an interesting experience for us,” said Villet. “This was just the beginning of a very exciting journey; our next goal is to have a VR shopping experience in China.”
Given Alibaba’s track record of expansion, moves into VR are unlikely to end there, but Zhu refused to be drawn too much further on their immediate plans. “In the future, the IT department has a lot of ambitious movements and is looking to apply VR technology to more and more brands,” she said.
Yet Alibaba and its various investments aren’t the only platforms looking keenly at the potential of VR for their business. Laura Ni, the apparel & home furnishing BU worldwide BD director at JD.com, also stated during the Shanghai Fashion Web talk that the rival online shopping platform “has a team set up” to explore the potential of VR for its brand. Meanwhile, the speakers’ discussion of new technologies was followed by a presentation from Joyce Chang of Zanadu, a China-based luxury travel company that has been a big proponent of VR usage and which allows potential customers to take “short getaways” to ski resorts or tropical beaches through VR headsets.
For so long merely the stuff of science fiction, and then prohibitively expensive, VR technology has become very much a reality and a major focus for market leading brands and platforms in China chasing the increasingly powerful urban young consumer. Don’t be surprised if major outlets increasingly offer VR options as the norm in the coming months.
And of course if it’s going to be big in China, global brands would do well to take note. The Shanghai Fashion Web session also highlighted that the notion that consumers and brands here are merely imitators rather than innovators is seriously outdated, with a segment entitled “Innovation and New Trends: It’s Time to Copy China.”