Neha Singh
TECHNOLOGY

Exclusive Q&A: Obsess intently focuses on bringing virtual retail to life

BY Dan Berthiaume

Obsess functions like a virtual mall, thanks to leading-edge augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technology.

The Obsess homepage offers links to individual virtual stores featuring photorealistic images of products created using CGI (computer-generated imagery). Shoppers can click through an image to link to a popup that displays the item name, a close-up image, price, and link to a checkout page on the brand’s website to make a purchase. Some social influencers also have their own curated stores.

Neha Singh, founder & CEO of Obsess, recently sat down with Chain Store Age to discuss her views about AR and VR in retail in general, and how they support innovation at her company in particular.

What was your background before Obsess?
“Engineering and product design. I have a graduate degree in computer science from MIT, and was an engineer and tech lead at Google for five years. Then I thought I wanted be a fashion designer, and took classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology. I eventually realized I was bad at drawing and decided to stay on the tech side of fashion.

“I then led product technology at an e-commerce startup at AHAlife; I built an end-to-end e-commerce platform. I discovered it is difficult to make a good e-commerce site that is different than a grid with thumbnails and a white background. Following that, I served as head of product at Vogue for three-and-a-half years, developing digital products and mobile apps and working with advertisers to create engaging digital experiences.”

What gave you the idea for Obsess?
“As a consumer, I love fashion and shopping, but hate online retail. Every e-commerce site today offers an experience that is like taking a database and putting it on a site with filters and search capability. You scroll forever through endless pages. Amazon curated an e-commerce experience for books, and now it is used for every product category.

“There is no differentiation in how product categories or brands are sold online. In the store, different products are sold in different ways and different stores create different feelings. Brands need to create an online experience and make e-commerce like physically shopping.

The first time I tried VR was using an early Oculus headset. I’m not gamer, but I remember thinking, ‘This is how I want to shop.’ Our starting point was putting the store on VR headsets, but it was too early and consumer adoption was too low. Most use cases involved in-store activation. Our goal is to change e-commerce and create an expanded e-commerce platform.”

How are participating brands reacting?
“We have worked with brands in the last year including Levis, Tommy Hilfiger, and Farfetch, as well as some smaller brands. They have run multiple programs with good results. We have been able to help them sell out certain collections. Smaller brands can put all their products in same experience. Conversion rates go up as much as two times, while session time increases up to 175% and average order value is also increased.”

How are customers reacting?
“The customer feedback to Obsess is positive. In comments from user testing since November 2018, people find it to be a cool experience. They really see it as the next step in online shopping. Among our target demographics of Gen Z and millennials, reaction is very positive. Teenagers who came to the office to test it out had the best reaction of all.”

How do you see AR and VR evolving in retail?
“Overall, retail is in the early adoption stage of AR and VR. A lot of brands are launching campaigns, and the experience will become a natural part of shopping. One of our goals is for consumers not to need to think ‘this is AR/VR’ on a website or app. Virtual try-on is currently the ‘Holy Grail’ of AR/VR in retail, but widespread usage of at-home headsets will take time; the hardware is bulky.

“Other than gaming, retail is the biggest area for AR and VR. It will make a massive difference from what the retail experience is today. In the store, with AR you will be able to tie all the product information available online (user reviews, instructional videos, etc.) with the physical product.

“There will also be more virtualization of actual stores. You will able to increase the reach of a pop-up store in New York so anyone in the world can get the same experience, increasing the reach and ROI. From a technical perspective, as networks become faster you can create heavier experiences.

“Also, what we do now is restricted by what’s possible on the graphics processing unit (GPU). Next-generation devices will render more photorealistically and interactively, and consumer expectations will become higher.”

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