Ready, headset, go: Retailers racing ahead with VR for staff training

The circa 5,000 virtual reality (VR) videos viewed over two weeks by Costa Coffee staff, looking to understand how best to prepare the company’s Christmas drinks range, highlight the appetite for learning in the organisation using this technology.

That is the view of Laura Chapman, head of learning at Costa, who says festive-themed training videos were not mandatory for its workforce, but they really captured the imagination of its people at this busy time of year.

“It’s still early days for us, but feedback show us teams are motivated to learn this way,” she says, commenting on the recent introduction to over 1,500 Costa stores of Google Cardboard headsets and associated tools, enabling teams to access 360-degree footage of coffee-making tips and techniques.

The move was announced at the end of October, and was primarily a way of helping induct new staff in the ways and methods of Costa baristas ahead of the busy Christmas trading period. However, it’s a platform that can be used for training all year round.

Chapman says the VR element is embedded into what she describes as an already comprehensive training programme, and currently includes tips on how to make an Americano or the Black Forest Hot Chocolate which appears on the menu in December.

And as consumers continue to seek out more compelling experiences, expertise and different types of engagement during a trip to a retail or food and beverage outlet, there are several ways the Costa VR staff training tool is catering for these demands by preparing staff accordingly.

“We have a high volume of millennials in the workforce, so we wanted to be able to provide an engaging and innovative way of training them, one which would really excite them to learn,” says Chapman.

“The VR 360 videos we currently have provide a wider insight into the coffee growing process with footage of coffee plantations in Peru along with sneak peaks inside our state of the art roastery and coffee lab in Basildon.

“In addition to this, we also feature drinks tutorials on our key products, so teams can learn faster by immersing themselves in a real-life environment.”

Walmart is another big retail business that is well under way with its use of VR for operational gain. Facebook-owned Oculus Go VR headsets are being used by the grocer’s staff across the US, with the STRIVR-created content teaching people about technology and compliance, and aiding soft skill development like empathy and customer service.

To indicate the scale of the technology’s usage, the plan is for four VR headsets in every Walmart “supercenter”, and two units to every neighbourhood market and discount store. In total, the retailer says 17,000+ headsets are in use at Walmart today.

VR training must run deep

Ed Greig, chief disruptor at Deloitte, agrees that some of the best cases of VR usage in retail are around staff training.

“If you want to change the behaviour of your staff, that’s something you can do with VR in a way you couldn’t do with text-based e-learning,” he says.

“Some organisations are still using paper-based learning, and these are organisations that in other areas are very technical, but VR can enhance this process.”

Greig backs VR’s ability to improve the soft skills of store associates to align them with company values or to provide a platform for helping more senior staff improve management and empathy, but ultimately he sees the biggest gains for retailers coming from its wider deployment by human resources departments.

Wider recruitment

He acknowledges the idea of VR being used as a staff training tool has opened up conversations with Deloitte clients about their wider recruitment and subsequent learning strategy. As retailers embark on widescale digital transformation, he sees VR playing a central role in improving store design, supply chain operations, and general processes.

“Our motto is ‘fall in love with the problem not the solution’,” says Greig.

“There is a real danger with a new tech like VR and the subsequent modifications to that tech that people can fall in love with the solution [and forget why they need it in their businesses]. If you’re going to use VR, it should be about reshaping your entire learning strategy and how you look to develop people throughout the organisation.”

“It’s really effective when it’s used as part of the recruitment process, providing a consistency of experience for employees right from the first moment they have contact with a certain company,” he says.

“If retailers can nail that, it gives them a whole load of additional time where they’ve got people thinking about their brand values, and they can hit the ground running once they’re on the team.”

In a future internet of things (IoT) environment, Greig predicts multiple ways VR could play a part in the “digital twin” process, where a retailer’s physical premises are effectively digitally cloned. One can imagine staff using VR in this format to remotely change a retail store’s lighting or signage setting in real time, he asserts.

VR as standalone entertainment

VR is cropping up in various guises across retail, be it Virgin Holidays using Google Cardboard in stores to help customers experience locations before they book them, or Tommy Hilfiger kitting out global flagships with WeMakeVR-loaded SamsungGear devices to showcase its catwalk shows to in-store visitors.

But some of the most impactful uses of it revolve around creating an event out of VR technology. At Westfield Stratford City in 2016, Samsung ran an in-shopping-centre pop-up, enabling around a quarter of a million people to try out its Gear VR to experience roller coaster rides in North America or holidays in remote destinations.

Judging by that success, it is perhaps clear why ImmotionVR, a company that designs content for VR and operates simulators in public places around the UK, is continuing to scale its business based on a similar cinematic-like premise.

With 12 locations across the country, including at Manchester’s Arndale Centre, Birmingham’s Star City, Intu Derby, and most recently, Wembley’s London Designer Outlet, the company is creating theme-park-like, family-friendly experiences starting from £5 in shopping centres around the UK.

Martin Higginson, CEO of Immotion Group, says his company is looking to help the wider retail industry not by selling it VR technology as an internal solution, but by setting up its simulators and VR installations deep within retail – in the aisles of shopping centres or in locations left behind by collapsed or down-sizing retail chains.

“We’re focused on delivering an out-of-home experience,” he says.

“Currently shopping in general needs to bring theatre, because without that retail will wither on the vine. The high street and shopping malls need to change and start creating more theatre be it additional dining spaces, VR or something else; there needs to be a unique mix that creates a ‘theme park’ within shopping centres.”

Incentivising shopping mall visits

Higginson argues that venues from ImmotionVR, which creates its own content from its Manchester studios and offers VR experiences covering scenarios ranging from roller coaster rides to swimming with sharks off the coast of Tonga, can give families an added incentive to visit a shopping mall.

There is also a focus within the business on providing VR-enabled destinations for work parties and educational trips for schoolchildren.

“We want to create Disneyland in Westfield or Lakeside, or wherever – shopping centre owners have massive challenges with the likes of House of Fraser and Debenhams going through turmoil,” he says.

“We can bring experiences to shopping centres and fill them with guests throughout the week, helping malls become leisure destinations rather than venues for straight-out shopping.”

Higginson also argues the continued growth of his brand will open up VR to the mainstream. As a result, the tech might become more widely used in the home and in the workplace. In short, society could be about to see more of it in its various forms.

Costa and Walmart are clearly on the start of their VR journeys, but the staff engagement it has resulted in, and – in the case of Walmart – the rapid extended roll-out of the technology to date, suggests further exploration and usage is imminent.

VR roll-out a reality

Walmart announced in September that its VR technology was set to be accessible for all employee training across its entire US store portfolio, following initial usage solely for staff development in Walmart Academies. More than one million Walmart associates will now receive the same level of training as those in the academies, the retailer said.

Meanwhile, all of Costa’s fully owned stores – as opposed to its franchise and concession partners – have a Google Cardboard headset that allows staff to experience VR. And Chapman acknowledges the business is looking to make them available to its partnerships and international stores, while additional ideas for its usage keep arising.

“We could provide ‘on-the-job’ experiences to potential candidates so they get an idea as to what it’s like working in one of our stores,” she says.

“The coffee growing process and following the coffee journey from bean to cup is also something that we feel would be useful for inductions for everyone in the Costa family both among our store teams and in our support centre.”

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Joan Guzman