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GUEST COMMENT Can augmented reality help retail?

Augmented reality (AR) is increasingly used to create an immersive shopping environment

The high street is shrinking. The likes of Poundworld, Brookstone, Toys R Us and Maplin have already fallen victim, while House of Fraser and Mothercare are having to take drastic action to avoid a similar fate. Their downfall can, without doubt, be attributed to the unstoppable rise of internet shopping, as more and more consumers desert the traditional high street store format for the flexibility and convenience of shopping online.

To combat the exodus, some retailers have turned their attention to technology and innovation to replicate the effortless experience shoppers enjoy online, on the high street. AR, in particular, is increasingly used to create an immersive shopping environment.

In the fashion and beauty sectors, magic mirrors and smart walls allow shoppers to browse digital clothing collections, try on a product and at the merest swipe, change its colour, design or style. It’s effortless, convenient and above all, exciting. Bringing online, offline. Kylie Cosmetics is the latest brand to use AR to let people virtually try on lipstick, with the introduction of a custom face filter on Instagram. Other beauty brands have also tapped into the AR space to help demonstrate their products before purchase. Earlier this year L’Oréal bought AR beauty tech startup Modiface, which lets consumers transform a 3-D image of their face in real time as they ‘try on’ different beauty products. Coty and Covergirl launched the world’s first in-browser shoppable AR beauty experience, aiming to increase virtual make-up trials. Such examples illustrate these cosmetics giants’ commitment to providing digital experiences to their customers.

Similarly, IKEA applied the same technique in their stores, allowing customers to create their perfect living environment digitally, using VR headsets to bring the space to life. The technology gave shoppers a real sense of what the furniture, furnishing and accessories they’d selected would look like in their own home – without having to walk the length and breadth of the store to search for the items separately.

In the food and beverages sector, tequila brand Patrón launched an augmented reality app to show its customers how the product is made while providing guidance on tequila tastings at home. Developed with Apple’s ARKit, the app creates a miniature hacienda replicating the distillery in Mexico, and it can be used on any flat surface, like a bar, conveniently. Accompanied by a bartender and a small agave field, customers can partake in virtual tequila-making, learning about the brand’s history and how its products are made in an interactive manner.

Creating experiences like these that link online and offline experiences could save the high street. But the technology is still in its infancy, making it niche, expensive and sadly, out of reach for many retailers. Yet, as the high street continues to flounder, AR is being adopted at a much faster rate elsewhere. The technology is already used by the military to help teams complete repairs in the field, whereas medicine often turns to AR to prepare students for surgery. The AR market could grow to $90 billion in 2020, further illustrating the wide potential of the technology’s adoption as people become more aware of it and could even start demanding it.

Its strength, particularly in retail, is that augmented reality enables us to shop anywhere, while benefitting from personalised and visualised experiences. So as smartphones pick up on AR functionality, will there be a need to visit the high street at all?

Imagine having a magic mirror at home. It could connect personal data to services such as calendar, weather and ecommerce. Suddenly, we’d be able to shop for an upcoming event like a holiday; seeing product suggestions selected to match our individual tastes, without ever leaving the house.

A magic mirror would know that snow was forecast and could identify that we hadn’t bought a suitable pair of boots for a while, making recommendations before the thought to purchase had even entered our head.

And just like the smart mirrors in designer stores, the mirror in your home would allow you to try on AR versions of clothes and accessories, then purchase them directly through a touchscreen or a voice command for delivery right to your door.

So, is this a vision of the future or should high street retailers start worrying? We’re a couple of years away from seeing mass take-up; the biggest barrier being the cost to produce content. But as AR technology is applied to more smartphones, adoption will increase, and product costs will come down. It’s already revolutionising shopping in Japan, where AR is more widely used not just in retail, but as a form of entertainment which incorporates a mix of gamification.

It’s an opportunity for retailers as data shows that 61% of shoppers prefer stores which offer AR experiences, 71% of them would return more often, while 40% are even willing to pay more for a product if they could experience it via AR. The technology can enable customers to shop in a quick and easy manner, eliminating the burden of choice due to increased personalisation, and removing the pain of queueing to pay. AR’s use can help create immersive shopping experiences, blending the in-store environment with digital innovations and offerings. This will appeal to the growing number of customers who seek and value those in the rise of the ‘experience economy’, bringing them back on to the high street.

As more and more brands embrace AR and adopt it into its strategies, the technology will become increasingly accessible and adaptable throughout a variety of sectors. Retailers are presented with an opportunity to maximise on and should focus on crafting multi-sensory experiences for their customers, giving them the personalisation and convenience they progressively seek. While the retail sector is transforming, its future is still uncertain. The brands and retailers who manage to successfully embrace and adopt new tech and innovations into their existing environments will lead the way in the race back to the high street.

Author: Rob Ellingham, creative director at smp

Image credit: Fotolia

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