Buying furniture the traditional way is a uniquely painful experience. Imagine buying a couch. You have to trek to a home goods store, like Ikea or West Elm, wherein you encounter hundreds of sofa options, all of which look great in the store. But will it look good in your living room? Will it even fit (you probably forgot to measure)? How are you going to get it home?
The team behind Wayfair, the Boston-based online retailer, set out to make this process a lot less painful for consumers. Founded in 2002, Wayfair is now the largest pure-play online retailer of home goods, generating over $3B in annual revenue  . Boasting over seven million products, Wayfair combines the convenience of online shopping with a guarantee that you find the right piece of furniture at the right price point . Not content with merely disrupting the traditional brick-and-mortar home goods shopping experience, Wayfair is setting its sights on the next frontier of digital technology: bringing AR and VR into (the furnishing of) your living room.
Augmented reality (AR) describes the blending of the real world with digital objects, like Google Glass or Pokémon Go [4). Virtual reality (VR) takes this concept even further, utilizing accessories like the Oculus Rift headset to immerse the user in a wholly digital world . While these concepts may seem on the fringe of mainstream consumer use, Wayfair is investing in both technologies to solidify their position as a leading home goods retailer.
On the AR side, Wayfair recently launched their WayfairView application to allow users to place full-scale 3-D models of products in real settings . Utilizing Lenovo’s new Phab2 Pro tablet running google Tango technology, users can upload photos of their living room that include digital measurements of each object. This enables shoppers to select digital models of Wayfair products and see how the furniture actually fits in their home, and whether it matches their existing décor .
Not content with an AR offering, Wayfair has also launched two VR applications this year: Patio Playground and IdeaSpace. Both of these apps allow users to arrange and interact with Wayfair products in different virtual settings. Patio Playground allows users to arrange patio furniture in their backyard, while IdeaSpace aims to inspire customers by letting them experience Wayfair furniture in a variety of virtual room settings  . These apps require a user to have access to a VR headset, like Oculus Rift, but offer a new level of immersion into Wayfair’s catalog. So far, Wayfair has created 10,000 3-D models of its furniture products, and hopes to convert their entire catalog of 7-million products into a virtual library within 5 years . This is no small feat considering that each product must be put onto a turntable and rotated around four-high resolution digital cameras (the camerawork takes five-ten minutes per product, plus several hours of post-production processing). .
It’s too early to assess the impact that Wayfair’s foray into AR and VR will have on their home goods sales, but these concepts are a natural extension of Wayfair’s business model (transforming the home goods shopping experience from a painful experience to a pleasant affair) and operating model (building a cutting-edge technological platform to connect buyers with products that fit their tastes and needs). These applications support both models: they make shopping online for furniture more appealing to new buyers, and utilize technology to allow Wayfair to better compete with the traditional retailers that let shoppers physically experience a product before they buy. .
I’m impressed by Wayfair’s early commitment to these emerging technologies, but I would challenge the company to get these applications in the hands of as many people as possible, in order to accelerate the shift to buying furniture online (online sales make up less than 20% of the total home goods market) . Wayfair has had success partnering with leading tech companies like Google and Oculus – they should think about creating similar partnerships with electronics retailers like Best Buy to promote app demos that allow customers that don’t own the hardware to experience their products. Perhaps they could also deploy roving Wayfair Wayfarers to drive headsets through cities across the country to showcase the Wayfair shopping experience. Finally, Wayfair should think about how to provide more value-added services like design recommendations through AR and VR technology. Speaking as someone with a limited eye for style and design, it would be amazing to upload a photo of my living room and have Wayfair generate a full suite of furniture to optimize the space, which I could then explore through a tablet or headset.
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1 “Wayfair.” Crunchbase. https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/wayfair#/entity. Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.
2 “Wayfair Unveils Immersive Home Design Experience with Daydream Virtual Reality App.” Wayfair. 10 Nov. 2016. http://investor.wayfair.com/investor-relations/press-releases/press-releases-details/2016/Wayfair-Unveils-Immersive-Home-Design-Experience-with-Daydream-Virtual-Reality-App/default.aspx. Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.
3 “About Wayfair.” Wayfair. https://www.wayfair.com/about/. Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.
4 Kirsner, Scott. “Adding a level of reality to online shopping.” Boston Globe. 5 May 2016. https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2016/05/05/adding-level-reality-online-shopping/wXRlzWBdGIo7j5LO8sOg5K/story.html. Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.
5 Woyke, Elizabeth. “How Stores Will Use Augmented Reality to Make You Buy More Stuff.” MIT Technology Review. 17 Jun. 2016. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601664/how-stores-will-use-augmented-reality-to-make-you-buy-more-stuff/. Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.
6 O’Shea, Dan. “Wayfair expands virtual reality universe with IdeaSpace.” RetailDive. 13 Nov. 2016. http://www.retaildive.com/news/wayfair-expands-virtual-reality-universe-with-ideaspace/430310/. Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.
7 Merrill, Kate. “Boston-Based Company Bringing Virtual Reality to Online Shopping.” CBS Boston. 2 Nov. 2016. http://boston.cbslocal.com/2016/11/02/online-shopping-virtual-reality-wayfair/. Accessed 3 Nov. 2016.
8 Briggs, Bill. “What’s driving home goods purchases online.” Internet Retailer. 15 Jul. 2016. https://www.internetretailer.com/2016/07/15/whats-driving-home-goods-purchases-online. Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.