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EDITORIAL Are retailers turning to tech just as consumers are turning away?

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A raft of retailer results out this week show that the first half of the financial year that ended a month or so ago wasn’t perhaps as bad as many feared. The results do, however, mask how trading towards the end of the period was starting to ring alarm bells, as consumer spend fell away.

Early data in Black Friday and anecdotal evidence suggest that Peak might see a resurgence in sales is also encouraging, but retailers are already clamouring to find ways to maximise the next couple of weeks, not least in driving physical retail.

Youth sports and fashion retailer JD is leveraging Snapchat, augmented reality and the halo effect of its omnipresent World Cup TV ad to turn the storefront of its Oxford Street store into a giant claw grab arcade machine. Accessed by scanning a Snap code in the window, Snapchat users can play away and win prizes.

Just around the corner, The Yard in Covent Garden is also offering prizes to shoppers who are physically present, using geotargeting to deliver a range of goodies to those that again have scanned a code and logged in to The Yard’s website on their phones.

The British Fashion Council (BFC) is also getting in on the act, allowing Snapchatters to experience the Diet Coke-sponsored Fashion Awards online, while those that turn up in person can try on a range of virtual outfits overlaid on to themselves using AR.

The key thing here is that all these are using mobile, AR and the web to drive consumers to a physical location. While all very interesting, is it likely to work? A study out this week that looks at global attitudes to the metaverse, for example, finds that consumers in China and the Middle East are very much into the idea of using the metaverse – and by dint of that AR, VR and all these other immersive technologies – to improve their online experience. Here in the West – and in the UK in particular – interest is up to five times lower.

This presents retailers with a conundrum and turns conventional wisdom on its head. For many years, retailers have lagged behind what consumers want from tech. Implementing omni and cross-channel services that work, mobile commerce in all its forms and even adopting the marketplace model have all been things that shoppers have wanted, but which it has taken retailers many years to get right. Now we find that retailers, awash with tech and with a real impetus to put it to use to drive sales are hitting a wall of ‘meh’ from shoppers. 

The metaverse, while potentially something that could radically reshape how we interact with everything digital as well as each other, seems to have become a tech contagion that has actually put people off before they have even begun.

This sudden surge of Luddite-ness brought about by fear of the metaverse – or rather ignorance of what it is breeding distrust – is also seeing many of these other technologies lumped in that same basket.

AR, which is the simplest and currently most widespread of these technologies is starting to come into its own – sadly at a time when people are viewing it with scepticism. Perhaps, though, these Christmas themed drives to put it to practical use may yet be what pushes the metaverse and its attendant tech into the mainstream.

One driver that may yet come to have a significant impact here is that shoppers are still very much motivated by social justice and sustainability. This, along with the need to save money, is pushing the growth of the second hand economy – something that is now looking to be worth in excess of £150bn globally this year. This is now a properly powerful sector and one where shoppers are looking to find the best deals and bargains. This naturally lends itself to technology helping them do this. Perhaps the future of AR, VR and even the metaverse now lies in how to hook the underlying tech up to the second hand market?

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