MAGNIFICENT MILE — The North Face store at the John Hancock Center soon will take shoppers on virtual trips going well beyond the bright lights of Michigan Avenue.
The Alameda, Calif.-based outdoor apparel company will debut virtual reality headsets at the Mag Mile store at 875 N. Michigan Ave. later this month, said Eric Oliver, The North Face's director of digital marketing.
The headsets play a three-minute panoramic movie taking shoppers to the Moab Desert and Yosemite National Park. There, users join North Face athletes Sam Elias and Cedar Wright as they scale mountains and perform other feats while wearing North Face gear.
The John Hancock store is the first North Face shop in the United States to use the technology, Oliver said, and Downtown shoppers got a sneak peek at an event here last week. The North Face was inspired to use the headsets after seeing a presentation from virtual reality startup Jaunt last summer at Stanford University.
"The ability to transport people to another place was powerful for us," Oliver said.
The technology also arrives as retailers including The North Face attempt to keep shoppers in their stores and away from online competitors such as Amazon and eBay. Instead of just offering merchandise, many retailers are now adding adventurous elements to their shops to keep visitors' attention.
"That physical surrounding is really becoming important to keep people in the store, keep them engaged, and keep a functional experience in front of the consumer," said Stacy Neier, a senior lecturer at Loyola University Chicago's Quinlan School of Business.
In an era when checking out via iPad is becoming more of a norm than amenity, The North Face's virtual reality stands out, Neier said. The company is the first retailer she knew of to use virtual reality technology, but it's unclear whether the headsets will drive more sales, or come in vogue in destination shopping.
"It would be a trend if the right consumers are talking about it," Neier said. "But it's categorical. Buying a spatula isn't too much of a decision."
Oliver brushed off the pressure, saying the technology "is not about selling stuff." The headsets will roll out in The North Face's New York and San Francisco flagship stores after landing in Chicago, he said.
Shoppers who tried out the gear last week seemed impressed, peppering their virtual rides with exclamations that they were "awesome," or such a "trip." One of them was Lakeview resident Sam Stathos, 55, who's seen places like Yosemite and Joshua Tree National Park in real life.
"It was great technology," Stathos said. "Beyond real."
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