Modern Retail

Virtual Reality Is Becoming Part of Our New Reality – but There’s a Cache


As lockdowns and tiered restrictions fluctuate across the UK, non-essential retailers forced to close their doors to high street shoppers are having to rely on ecommerce now, more than ever. In fact, at the peak of the pandemic in May this year, ONS data revealed that online sales accounted for 32.8% of all UK retail sales, up from 18.8% in May 2019. Black Friday shopping this week surged over 21%, according to estimates by Adobe

Now, as we continue to navigate the busiest quarter for retailers, with little sign of the pandemic slowing, businesses must adapt the online services available to their clients in order to maintain a competitive edge. 

In an effort to provide richer, more immersive digital customer experiences, the retail industry has seen a significant increase in virtual reality buying experiences available. Newly popular virtual try-ons provide a fun and interactive way for users to “try on” everything from Specsavers’ glasses and (soon) clothes sold on Amazon, to Garnier and L’Oréal hair dyes and Mac and Urban Decay makeup, without leaving the house. 

These virtual adaptations offer retailers a competitive edge during a recession, helping to replicate the physical shopping process, which many people still value. However, the technology behind virtual reality shopping experiences relies on a far more robust website performance than companies have traditionally needed. Without adequate preparation for this, this could prove to be the downfall for many retailers rushing to adopt the latest trends in online buying experiences. 

When launches crash

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen countless examples of websites falling over when unable to handle increased traffic. In November, countless gamers’ attempts to pre-order the PlayStation 5 on the day it launched were thwarted when GAME and other retailers’ websites crashed. Many e-retailers have also struggled to keep up with growing day to day demand, with a number of major UK supermarkets suffering from online outages earlier this year.

Time and time again, retailers are leaving customers unable to make purchases, risking their reputations and damaging customer satisfaction and retention. When it comes to introducing new technology, such as virtual reality into the retail experience, it can put additional strain on a website and its underlying infrastructure. This could tarnish the reputation of the new virtual experience and discourage customers to use it again.  

Fortunately, the solution for protecting websites against such issues is surprisingly simple.

The cache

Caching technology, which can be installed using content delivery networks (CDNs), empowers online retailers to achieve significant improvements in website performance. Capable of decreasing webpage loading times, while increasing your sites ability to stay live during peaks in website traffic, caching can prevent consumers from abandoning shopping carts in favour of shopping with competitors. This means that when adopting virtual try-ons for your ecommerce site, you’ll be protecting your customers from dreaded buffering and error messages, which could prevent sales. 

At a time when profit margins are being hit by the pandemic, this simple investment in stable website infrastructure empowers customer retention, which for many may be the difference between a successful quarter and financial loss.

When web traffic volume is at its highest, a large number of web browsers request, fetch and reproduce identical content for an atypically high number customers, in a short period of time.  This is most likely to occur when a new product is released, or times when shoppers rush to take advantage of seasonal sales. Too often, retail websites are running through origin servers which are not optimised to be stretched in this way. As a result, servers become overwhelmed by the volume of requests and customers looking to purchase the latest gadget for Christmas or make the most of a great Black Friday deal, are instead faced with error messages and forced to abandon their shopping cart.

Caching works by storing copies of your website’s data in regional points of presence (affectionately known as PoPs, and often found in data centres) that are closer to your customers than a typical data centre. This allows retail websites to complete far greater volumes of requests for the same virtual product try ons, whether you’ve got a sale on your reading glasses, or you’re launching your latest line of lipsticks, without the need to repeatedly recreate and redistribute the same information at the same rate. Caching also reduces latency, which is crucial for virtual experiences, where even the smallest lag can blight the experience. 

In turn, servers are less likely to be overworked and overwhelmed, meaning the necessary data can be efficiently distributed to every customer, without websites slowing and crashing in the process.

When configured properly, CDNs give you full control over the website data you chose to store in your caching software. So, when it comes to virtual product try-ons, whether you’re launching the latest highly anticipated product line or holding a popular seasonal sale, you have the power to anticipate which products customers will be “trying on” online most on any given day and ensure it is ready to be accessed by customers across the country (or world), without risking a website outage.

Moving into 2021, retailers will no doubt have to continue to adapt to constantly evolving restrictions on high street stores. As ecommerce platforms adopt new technologies to remain competitive and make up for lost in-store sales, the popularity of virtual reality product testing will no doubt continue to rise. If these technologies are to succeed, retailers must do more to ensure their websites can cope with the pressure they’re putting on their servers.

Lars Larsson, CEO of Varnish Software