Jon Coates, IT director at online bathroom retailer Victoria Plum, explores the challenges of selling bathrooms online – and how immersive technology is helping the brand to improve confidence amongst its customers.

COVID-19 accelerated the inevitable shift towards online shopping, with 40% of consumers admitting they purchase online more than they did before the pandemic. But what does this shift mean for higher value retailers, where customers would traditionally have visited a showroom or store to experience products first hand?

The pandemic catalyst driving online shopping

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the world in a number of ways and retail is no different, as shoppers have embraced the opportunity to buy more online. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that in May 2020, in the peak of the UK’s first lockdown, online sales reached 33.9% of all retail sales. One year earlier, in May 2019, it was 19.2%.

Some of this spike can be directly related to COVID-19 restrictions, of course. Victoria Plum was selling more taps than bathrooms during lockdowns, because tradespeople weren’t always allowed into houses to complete jobs. Supermarkets recorded record online sales and delivery slots were virtually impossible to secure at times during the first lockdown.

However, while online sales did drop again once all stores were allowed to reopen, they have remained well above pre-pandemic levels. In December 2021, the most recent ONS figure available at the time of writing, online sales accounted for 27.7% of all UK retail sales. This compares with 21.4% in December 2019, before the pandemic started.

Although the shift to online purchasing was already underway (online sales as a proportion of all retailing rose from 5.6% in December 2008), the pandemic undoubtedly accelerated that shift. Brands were forced to invest in their e-commerce infrastructure; those who weren’t operating online took steps to do so, while those already serving customers online enhanced their offer.

Online shopping has become normalised. In one study, 40% of consumers said they will shop more online than they did before COVID-19.

The challenges of selling bathrooms online

For some sectors, this shift to online purchasing has been a relatively smooth one. Take grocery shopping, where existing infrastructures, consumer habits and the nature of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) all helped facilitate a rapid increase in online shopping. For others, it has been a more challenging journey.

Selling bathrooms online, for example, comes with its own unique challenges. Traditionally, online shoppers don’t have the opportunity to touch and feel products that they would in a showroom, nor visualise items in a room setting.

There is also a concept that ‘everyone has a small bathroom’ and we know from customer research that homeowners can’t always visualise a toilet, sink, or bath without seeing the scale of products in a similar environment. Online purchases can lead to high return rates too, due to the number of ‘blind’ purchases.

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As the UK's largest exclusively online bathroom retailer, these challenges weren’t new to Victoria Plum. But with showrooms closed during COVID-19 restrictions, bricks and mortar bathroom retailers needed to overcome these issues in a short space of time if they were to keep selling bathrooms.

Now, with all evidence pointing towards a continued and accelerated growth of online shopping, brands are increasingly looking at innovative technologies to help overcome their challenges.

The rise of immersive technologies

Our solution at Victoria Plum has been to invest in immersive technologies, helping customers to see and understand how products work in a space.

Immersive technologies are designed to ‘digitally extend or replace reality for the user’ in order to improve the overall experience. These can include: augmented reality (AR), where computer-generated images or information are added to objects and environments seen in the real world; virtual reality (VR), a simulated experience where users are placed in the computer-generated environment usually through VR headsets; and mixed reality (MR), a blend of physical and digital worlds to produce new environments.

In the context of bathroom retail, they help the customer to see and understand products work in a space, which in turn can increase confidence in the purchase. With higher value purchases such as home improvement, it’s easy to see the confidence this can instil in a customer.

Victoria Plum is currently utilising AR technology to showcase products, as well as bathroom planners which allow customers to build a 2D or 3D image of their preferred layout within their own bathroom space.

While AR has been available for a number of years, in reality it is has not been suitable for consumer retail use until recently. With more and more smartphones in circulation capable of AR technology, now is a good time to introduce it to the online retail sector.

By working with our partners to build models and apply the technology to our digital channels, we’re giving our customers the chance to view a product in-situ in their own bathroom, using their smartphone or tablet. They can see the scale of a sink, toilet or bath, move around the product, examine the fine details and see how much it works in relation to walls or windows.

AR and 3D room planning are bridging the gap between online and offline shopping. Crucially, they give customers the confidence that what they are buying will work in their space, overcoming any potential issues over sizing or details when the products arrive.

Exploring the next steps in immersive technology and shopping

For Victoria Plum, our goal now is to continue analysing the feedback from customers and expand the product range available in our AR planner. We currently have 100 products available and aim to increase that figure to 650 within the coming months.

This is still a recent introduction but the early signs are encouraging and the response from customers has been promising. We’re testing the functionality daily and getting new insights all the time, which will shape our future strategy. We’re confident that as more consumers adopt the technologies, it will help to reduce the number of returns for online bathroom purchases.

Whilst we expect AR to become commonplace in many retail sectors, the next challenge will be whether innovative brands can make VR work on a mass scale.

AR is relatively easy to implement, because the consumer only needs a smartphone or tablet to access the technology. Already you can view what different haircuts would look like, ‘try on’ different clothes before you’ve even purchased them and view any type of cushion on your sofa. It’s a natural extension to take this into higher ticket purchases.

VR, however, is further away because we need headsets to make the technology work. The challenges from a user perspective will make it more difficult to roll out, but don’t rule it out in the near future.

For now, our focus will remain on bridging the gap between online and offline purchasing using the technologies available to us. Immersive technologies are helping in providing the solution, but to deliver the same standards offline and online, they must be matched by a slick user interface and streamlined customer service right through to delivery and aftersales.