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The Future of Brick-and-Mortar Retail Spaces: Sunglass Hut's VR Initiatives and Beyond

Written by:
Ruth Austin
Heidi Fin

Over the past few years, industries at large have been undergoing a massive transformation thanks to virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies becoming more mainstream. In the world of architecture, AR and VR are being utilized to render projects, visualize design factors, and provide virtual tours. According to a report from the Royal Institute of British Architects, as many as 35% of architects now employ at least one variant of AR or VR  in their work.

Meanwhile, AR and VR are also changing the retail landscape, with brick-and-mortar stores increasingly incorporating AR and VR to enhance the shopping experience for customers, offering immersive and interactive features that redefine how products are showcased and experienced. To better understand how AR and VR are revolutionizing the retail sector, we'll delve into one major brand at the forefront of blending physical and virtual reality in its stores – Sunglass Hut. 

The resurgence of physical stores

Founded in 1971, Sunglass Hut has grown into a top destination for the most sought-after high-quality fashion and performance eyewear brands. Sunglass Hut's range of sunglasses includes premium labels such as Ray-Ban, Versace, and Fendi, which can be purchased from over 3,000 retail locations worldwide. When customers walk into a brick-and-mortar Sunglass Hut store, they can expect a shopping experience aligned with the brand's premium identity.

For instance, the recently revamped flagship location in Sydney has a luxurious design with gold as the predominant color flowing throughout, seeking to provide a welcoming environment with care and attention to detail. The store layout is thoughtfully designed to encourage browsing and discovery, with different sections dedicated to various brands, styles, and collections, making it easy for customers to find the perfect pair of sunglasses for their style and taste.

This focus on enhancing existing stores is by design. According to a Forbes article, contrary to the common belief that online sales are the primary revenue driver, physical stores have proven profitable and instrumental in boosting online sales. Moreover, an ICSC Gen Z report from earlier this year cited 97% of respondents shop brick-and-mortar, with over 35% of those due to the experience and ability to see, touch, and try products.

Experimenting with VR and AR in-stores

Standing out in an overcrowded online marketplace has become a challenge for e-commerce brands. In response, companies are turning to physical stores to provide a unique environment where customers can interact with products in a way that online sales channels can't match. In the case of Sunglass Hut, the brand partnered with VR technology developer Emperia to create a VR store called Sunglass Hut Utopia.

This innovative concept allows customers to explore and try on sunglasses virtually. Part of the VR experience was a game where customers were encouraged to collect products scattered throughout the store, which then entitled them to a free gift with any purchase, providing a distinct and engaging shopping experience beyond what traditional brick-and-mortar stores offer. 

In 2023, Sunglass Hut took another step toward making VR experiences accessible to shoppers, collaborating with Ready Player Me, an avatar creation platform. The partnership marked a first for virtual fashion, allowing avatars to sport the latest styles of sunglasses, just like their human counterparts. The addition of Sunglass Hut's digital sunglasses to Ready Player Me's platform offers users a new way to express their personal style in the virtual world.

How other brands are responding

The resurgence of physical stores has brought about a new concept in retail, focusing on the experience rather than transactions. An example is the Jordan brand's World of Flight in Shibuya, Japan. Akin to a museum, the shop holds an impressive collection of rare and expensive sneakers from some of the most prominent collectors in the world. 

Elsewhere, at Nike's flagship store in New York City, shoppers can dip their toes into 'phygital' (physical + digital) retail. The location boasts a basketball half-court and an enclosed soccer trial area where customers can test products. In addition, shoppers can use touchscreens at the customization shoe bar to personalize their Nike products, making in-store shopping more of an experience rather than a chore. 

As more retailers recognize the potential of VR and AR to transform how consumers interact with products and brands, we can expect these technologies to become integral components of the retail landscape, ushering in a new era of immersive shopping experiences. 

For more articles like this on how virtual reality and emerging technologies are impacting architecture and design, visit the Amazing Architecture website!

By Liliana Alvarez

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