By: Scott Way
The retail marketplace is constantly evolving as brands seek to captivate consumers before their competitors can do the same. Companies at the forefront of their industries are trying to maintain their platforms by investing in VR (virtual reality) technology with growing expectations. Brands like Amazon, Mastercard, Samsung, Lowes, IKEA, Lexus, and Volvo are each experimenting with changes to the longstanding perception of the ‘buying experience’ by bringing products into consumer homes through augmented reality. This year Lexus allowed consumers to go on a virtual test drive of their premium models, giving them a realistic taste of the racetrack before putting down a dollar.
At its core, the objective is to give consumers the opportunity to look, touch, and feel products without ever stepping foot in a store or showroom. With an increasingly crowded marketplace and the decline of brick and mortar retail, companies are turning to VR to give consumers a valuable experience that’s equal parts simplicity and fun. As the ‘Age of Amazon’ continues to build and define the 2000’s, retailers and manufacturers across the spectrum are searching for the best way to improve the consumer experience by offering realism and simplicity without the attached headaches.
For boaters, the popularity of virtual shopping continues to grow. Industry staples like Boston Whaler and Princess Yachts offer quality 360 degree virtual tours of their products that allow potential buyers to browse their desired boat from bow to stern. You can sit in your home and simultaneously be sitting sit at the helm of a Princess Yachts V78 anchored in a tropical utopia, which isn’t a bad way to spend an evening. While you’re sitting in the virtual captain’s chair it’s not hard to envision yourself checking the radar screen to see if you should go swimming, or waltz down into the cabin to check on dinner.
If you’re looking for a Whaler, you can tour the Conquest 285’s main salon and see that dinner placements are already set, you just need guests at the dinner party you’re supposedly (but hopefully soon to be) hosting.
The boating industry has seemingly followed the groundwork of the automotive industry when it comes to virtual marketing, but that’s not a bad thing. The two aren’t necessarily comparable, either. The automotive industry has fewer manufacturers and a greater potential market share (every adult with a license) whereas boating has significantly more manufacturers catering to a lower percentage of the population (According to the NMMA, in 2018 there were 17 million recreational boats in use with a population of 327 million- roughly 5%). Boating has a more specialized consumer base with more refined attributes, which means in order to generate sales you better be good at drawing buyers in.
The compliment to the 360 virtual tour, and a template definitely borrowed from the automotive world, is the ‘virtual build.’ Whether you’re looking to design your own Nautique G23 Paragon or a spiffy new Chevrolet Corvette, a virtual build allows you to pick colours, options, engines, and accessories without ever going for a test drive. You can even watch the price tag climb on your new Corvette as you tick away adding luxurious options which, although intimidating, at least let’s you know how expensive your taste is. The boating industry keeps these dollar figures a little further behind the curtain, but that’s understandable given the volume of models, options, and the intricacies of the manufacturing (certain options work with certain models, etc).
Nautique offers one underrated detail that stands out during the building experience: you can rotate on a 360 axis both vertically and horizontally for a complete panorama. You can actually see everything top to bottom, and it builds your confidence being able to inspect each option that you select. There’s good reason to be thorough here, 59% of automotive buyers do extensive online research before entering a dealership, so it stands to reason boaters do the same. The more accurate your online experience is, the happier you’ll be when you see it in person in the showroom. Other brands are exploring the capabilities of VR too. Companies like Mastercraft, Chapparal, and Bayliner all offer virtual builds where you can design your dream boat from start to finish. The concept is seemingly becoming an industry standard among manufacturers, and with good reason.
While the virtual build has all the fun of piecing together your dream machine, it’s a little unrealistic in the sense you’re playing with a digitized template. It’s also extremely complicated; you’ll find running through the entire process from end to end will inevitably leave you wanting to call the manufacturer for clarification anyway. A compliment to this dilemma is a 360 degree virtual tour of the actual product. Smokercraft and Lund, to name just a few, include 360 degree virtual tours of nearly model which gives consumers a perspective that a virtual build simply can’t. The 360 tour is arguably the more helpful tool for buyers; it presents an actual product with scope and scale that users can control, giving them the power to explore individual aspects of the boat from bow to stern. It allows users to explore a vessel with a greater degree of realism, which in essence, is the end game. You can vicariously plop down at the helm and review the electronics and drive system, or scroll back to the stern and check out the engine, swim platform, or fishing accessories. Or you can take a trip down into the galley, lounge, head, or bedroom(s) to get an accurate visualization of what your dream boat would look like with proper scale. Sure, it’s fun to build a boat like you’re ordering a pizza for delivery, but you can’t get a realistic sense of what you’re getting until it shows up at your door.
The most challenging aspect of the virtual experience is how overwhelming it quickly becomes. With so many manufacturers, models, and options, simply going through 2-3 virtual builds is an undertaking (not to mention you’ll probably end up calling or e-mailing the manufacturer to clarify some hiccup you encountered during the process). Centralized resources make this much easier as they allow you to navigate through multiple models without having to visit individual manufacturer websites. Boatdealers.ca offers the most comprehensive list where you can choose from over 200 virtual tours from major names like Yamaha, Nautique, Avalon, Chris Craft, and Malibu.
With the growing pressure to attract consumers in exciting new ways, it’s no surprise retailers are looking to mimic a real-time experience while minimizing consumer stress. The convenience shows promise for both sides; consumers don’t have to spend time and money visiting a showroom, and retailers don’t have to carry a massive inventory to show customers every potential combination. Potential buyers can get a first-hand look at every size, color, and option from the comfort of their home, and retailers can provide them with a realistic substitute for the in-person buying experience while still serving their customer base. Sure, the end game may be a handshake and a John Hancock on the dotted line, but the ability to engage potential customers with a simple and smooth buying experience is always the objective, the question is simply whether consumers prefer that in the showroom or in the home office. The trends would suggest the latter.
If VR and 360 tours continue to improve the user experience, you can expect their presence to grow. Improvements in video quality, interactivity, and usability continue to push the concept of ‘virtual shopping closer and closer to an in-person experience. In fact, the lead to follow may indeed come from the automotive industry. Luxury legends Cadillac now offer a realtime virtual tour with an actual salesperson. You simply log onto Cadillac Live and they’ll link you up with an agent. The agent will take you on a tour of any vehicle in their showroom and answer any questions you have along the way. In essence, you really are in the showroom shopping for a car. This new kind of interactivity blends the digital with the real, and from a convenience standpoint it’s a great way to go shopping from the couch.
If you find yourself sitting at home in the dead of winter waiting to find your next vessel, there may no longer be a need to grab the car keys. Augmented reality is making it easy to grab your computer, look up your dream boat, and tour the possibilities. But fear not this new digital age, it only means a better shopping experience for you. A virtual build or 360 tour of your dream boat means that by the time you sit down at the helm you’ll know exactly where to crank up the stereo.