HIGH POINT, N.C. - Online furniture retailer Wayfair will outline its plans for bringing virtual reality to bear on web-based retailing at the 2016 Spring High Point Market. The furniture show, expected to draw 75,000 designers and professional furniture buyers, runs April 16-20 in High Point, North Carolina.
 
Mike Festa, who leads Wayfair’s development and integration of virtual reality technology, will explain at the Market how he hopes to speed up the rate at which consumers buy furniture online. No wonder: the company carries over 7 million home products from 7,000 suppliers who generally drop ship for it, and $2.25 billion in net revenue in the last twelve months. 
 
While Festa sees Virtual Reality as a critical element in moving this trend forward faster, Festa says there are several key issues that need to be addressed first.
 
“Traditionally, when shopping for furniture at a brick and mortar store, the customer is only able to view a limited selection,” said Festa. “Increasingly, people are shopping online as well as browsing in store and, over the past few years, our browsing and searching tools have come a long way, making it easier for them to find exactly what they are looking for."
The problem is, most items can only be experienced through a few two-dimensional images, Festa says.
 
"The next step is to build 3D representations of the product that allow the customer to see it from every angle, and then project it into their homes using augmented reality (AR). This will allow them to place a piece of furniture right where they want it, see how it fits, and view it from any angle.”
 
Products developed with CAD software already have a 3D model, but to fully realize the promise of Virtual Reality visualization, finishes, fabrics and detailing would need to be supplied for each SKU. For most companies, this would mean a significant investment in 3D modeling or scanning.
 
Festa says that the current high price point of Virtual Reality and Augment Reality (which displays virtual products on real backgrounds) is limiting deployment to enthusiasts—and that most of those are buying for gaming purposes.
 
As the gaming novelty wears off and price points come down, business applications will grow.
 
“VR offers a very powerful experience and there is a lot of interest in it, but how customers are going to react to and adopt the technology is still unknown. For furniture, it will be interesting to see if customers want to use this platform for designing and planning or just for visualization,” he says.
 
Fink explained that although there are currently a lot of web tools that allow people to decorate their homes in 3D, Wayfair research has found that the vast majority of customers are not interested in taking the time to do that. Instead, they respond better to seeing professionally created and curated lifestyle imagery.
 
“If virtual reality can put the person inside the design application and allow them to work more naturally with their hands and voices, we may see a new interest in do-it-yourself design,” Festa says.
 
While there are still hurdles to overcome, Festa has no doubt that VR is the future of online furniture retailing, predicting full integration in five to ten years. Given that this is approximately the same time frame that Millennials will reach the income and interest levels to become prime furniture purchasers, and that this demographic takes rapidly to new technology, our industry could be on the cusp of a technological revolution.
 
To see the current state of the art in VR for the home, attend the High Point Market Opening Day Event on Saturday, April 16 - or stop by the Trade Services by Wayfair tent any day of Market Week - where the company will be showcasing its recently launched technology.

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