Augmented retail a reality

This year will see AR technology take the shopping experience to new heights.

Augmented reality (AR) is one of the biggest technology trends, and it’s only going to get bigger in 2020 with the improvements in smartphones and 5G access. Among its many fans is Apple CEO Tim Cook, who has made no secret of Apple’s focus on AR-enabled devices.

“AR has the ability to amplify human performance instead of isolating humans,” Cook said. “So, I am a huge, huge believer in AR.”

In the retail space, Augmented Reality is being successfully utilised by innovative brands across the globe to improve customer experience and boost sales. While it is still early days for full-scale adoption of AR, it’s already proving itself a game changer.

Augmented Reality blends the physical and online worlds into an omni-channel experience, creating new ways of marketing and transforming the customer experience. Brands such as ASOS, Gucci, Toyota, Adidas and L’Oreal have invested heavily in AR technology and see the benefits of providing customers a visual representation of their product, allowing them to engage with the brand in a memorable way.

ASOS did this by producing a virtual catwalk via its app. The app’s AR feature was used to test new products. A user points their smartphone camera at a flat surface, then clicks the “AR” button on the product page in the app – models virtually appear, giving the consumer a new way of engaging with their products.

Similarly, Gucci added an Augmented Reality feature to its app to allow users to virtually try on sneakers. By pointing a smartphone towards their feet, users could overlay a variety of styles and take pictures of different sneakers to share on their social media. Adidas also used AR to promote sneakers when they partnered with Snapchat to create an AR lens for customers to show off their Ultraboost running shoes. Here, users were able to access the AR experience via lenses in the Snapchat app.

This year, retail chain Big W partnered with Snapchat Inc. ANZ’s general manager, Kathryn Carter, to create an AR experience featuring the brand’s toy catalogue. The campaign provided Big W’s audience with an opportunity to creatively connect with the toy catalogue, adding a playful element within the overall advertising experience.

The leveraging of AR promises to continue to erase the lines between online and bricks and mortar retailing, delivering a seamless experience which delivers both aspects of the retail experience, and in real time.

What is AR?

AR involves computer-generated images being superimposed over a person’s view of the real world to enhance their perception of reality. Virtual reality (VR) is different because it creates a perception of reality that is completely based on virtual information. The latter can be used to create a walk-though simulation of the inside of a building that does not exist in the real world, for example, whereas AR can superimpose a building’s structures on a real-life view. AR offers more potential to retailers because it seamlessly interweaves the digital and physical worlds to provide an immersive experience. Its power lies in the fact that it is so compelling that it becomes difficult for a potential buyer to remove themselves from the situation.

“Catalogues come to life with the help of a smartphone and an AR app, creating memorable marketing campaigns.”

While Pokemon Go and Snapchat are credited with first popularising AR technology, it’s no longer the novelty factor which is attracting marketers. With the retail sector being one of the biggest adopters of AR to date, consumers will soon expect AR to be built into their retail experiences.

Global research firm Gartner predicts that by 2020, 100 million consumers will shop in augmented reality. The same study also found that 46 per cent of retailers surveyed planned to deploy either AR or VR solutions to meet customer service experience requirements by 2020.

The pace of growth of AR and VR is already impressive. By the end of this year, spending in the Asia Pacific region is predicted to increase by more than 100 per cent since 2018 to reach

US$7.5 billion, according to the International Data Corporation (IDC). By 2023, IDC predicts that spending will reach US$30.7 billion.

Although the implementation of AR technology is still in its early stages and considered cutting edge, leading retailers have integrated AR technology into the instore experience. It is also being used in the e-commerce space to deliver the benefits of physically interacting with a product without the need to travel to a physical store. In fact, AR is credited with providing the best of both shopping experiences and boosting revenue as a result.

The use of AR in the retail industry has five important benefits:

  • converting browsers into buyers
  • enhancing the instore experience
  • increasing store visits
  • reducing product return rates
  • connecting readers with printed marketing content.

Brands that incorporate AR into the customer experience will cultivate long-term loyalty, particularly as expectations shift towards taking AR for granted.

Converting browsers into buyers

E-commerce is held back by customers faltering when they reach the checkout because they are uncertain whether the product will satisfy them when it arrives on their doorstep. AR can help silence these nagging doubts by allowing customers to preview products without needing to physically visit a store. Whether it’s a shade of lipstick, a pair of sneakers or a sofa, AR allows consumers to see what a product would actually look like once delivered, in turn increasing the likelihood of impulse purchases being made.

Enhancing the instore experience

Many retailers fail to consider that consumers feel they lack information while they are actually in a store. No matter how helpful a retail team is, many consumers do not feel comfortable asking a sales assistant what other customers honestly think of a product. AR technology enables a customer to point their device at a shelf of products to bring up reviews and additional product information, and do a search according to personalised criteria, such as locating food products that are gluten-free.

Increasing store visits

AR directs more customers into physical stores by piquing their curiosity about items they’ve previewed online. Apps such as Sweep use geolocation features to show a customer a dozen retailers in close proximity. AR combined with AI provides alerts on customised, real-time specials and discounts based on consumers’ shopping patterns or variables such as the weather. For example, on a rainy day, a shopper can be alerted to a deal on soup upon entering a store, whereas on a hot day they might receive coupons for a refreshing dessert.

Reducing product return rates

Fitting rooms are a big deterrent for many shoppers, who take a chance and buy without trying a garment on, only to discover that it needs to be returned, impacting customer satisfaction and the retailer’s bottom line. The same issue occurs even more frequently with online shopping because an item that delights in the digital sphere may differ from reality. By providing a virtual preview, AR spares consumers hassles and disappointments and, thereby, decreases the number of returns.

Connecting readers with printed marketing content

Catalogues come to life with the help of a smartphone and an AR app, creating memorable marketing campaigns. Italian scooter retailer Vespa’s AR app allows customers to scan the page on their phone and create their own custom scooter from all the available colours, styles and accessories. And Volkswagen leverages AR by empowering customers to hover their phone in the direction of their billboards to see the latest Beetle model burst across their screen.

Robyn Foyster, Founder of the Sweep AR app and publisher of WomenLoveTech.com

This story first appeared in issue 27 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine.

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