Best Buy bets on VR for the holidays with 500 stores demoing Oculus Rift

Best Buy has provided in-person demonstrations for Oculus Rift basically since there were real Oculus Rift headsets to demonstrate – the retailer announced back in May it would provide demos at 48 locations in the U.S. Now, it’s doubling down on that bet, with a plan to give customers a taste of VR in 500 locations in time for the holiday shopping season, according to Bloomberg.

Lest you think Best Buy is leaning entirely on Oculus to wow consumers with virtual goodies, the retailer is also going to be running demos of PlayStation VR in 200 locations, on a rotating basis among a number of stores. Sony’s PlayStation-based offering doesn’t come out until October, however, so Oculus could be the only game in Best Buy town for at least a little while.

It’s a big deal for Oculus, since VR is definitely something that has to be experienced to impress, especially if you’re the average consumer who likely has only a passing interest in the tech to begin with. But Best Buy needs a win, and VR presents a potentially big one, especially for a big box retailer that makes up its margins in the sale of accessories. VR is partly driving a resurgence in the high-end PC market, and Best Buy is just littered with PC rig and PlayStation add-ons that could benefit from the halo effect of Rift and PSVR sales.

But Best Buy’s bet here is likely more about experience than immediate return. Few people expect VR headset sales to burn up the consumer market in this, their debut year of availability. The HTC Vive and Oculus Rift combined, with mobile VR headsets like the Samsung Gear V, are expected to sell only around 2.5 million units in total during 2016. Even at the top end of estimates, like IDC’s projected 9.6 million headsets for 2016 (which even excludes Cardboard-type viewers), the category is modest relative to the industry’s big sellers, like smartphones and TVs.

There’s no doubt that VR faces a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem in that you mostly have to try it to know you want it, and widespread demo station presence at Best Buy will help immensely with that. But that also means VR will get one of its first true large-scale market tests – and the results of that test could help define how much investment and effort goes into the future of VR from here on out.