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GUEST OPINION How to make AR a retail reality

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In the wake of Amazon’s augmented reality launch, Scott Lester, Chairman, EyeKandy, assesses the lay of the AR land and examines how the technology can be made accessible and affordable for all.

We live in a visual world. The likes of Snapchat and Instagram have transformed our communication and daily interactions into visually-compelling experiences. We spend our days glued to our smartphones or computer screens, bombarded by video, ads, and imagery from brands battling to secure lucrative eyeball time. The retail industry is no different.

Visual merchandising used to mean attractive window displays, with floorplans and shop layouts designed to maximise sales. However, our mass migration to online environments has driven the need for a rich, engaging, 24/7 omnichannel shopping experience. From insta-buying on Instagram and chatting with retail bots, to digitising bricks-and-mortar touchpoints using QR codes, retailers have been forced to innovate or else risk falling behind more forward-thinking, responsive industry players.

The future of retail is immersive, personalised, engaging, and fun, and augmented reality can deliver on all these fronts. The technology is also predicted to deliver from a financial perspective; the AR market was valued at $2.39 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach $61.39 billion by 2023. One of the key drivers of this growth? Retail.

We’ve seen experimentation in the AR space over the past few years, but it was only with Amazon’s recent move that the technology’s future in the retail space has been assured. For the non-Amazons, AR needn’t be out of bounds, and instead can be part and parcel of all retail roadmaps.

Regarded as a gimmicky add-on in the early days, Augmented Reality is now being touted as an essential tool in any retailer’s kit. The AR shopper experience may still be in its infancy, but hardware and processing is getting better and faster, fuelling experimentation and deployment. As with many new technologies, there’s no doubt that investment in the technology now will drive consumer demand going forward.

One of the leaders in the pack is, unsurprisingly, Amazon. The retailer launched its AR View feature in November 2017, allowing customers to visualise products in their home via their smartphone camera and augmented reality technology. What is perhaps surprising, though, is the fact that Amazon was not the first to market with such a solution, having been pipped to the post by Ikea. In September, the Swedish flatpack furnisher released an AR app providing customers with just the same feature. Where Amazon treads, others will follow, so will 2018 be the year AR for retail really goes mainstream?

With any new tech, cost will be a barrier to entry for many. Whilst Amazon can afford to make big bets, most other retailers cannot. For AR to really work for both retailer and consumer, an affordable, accessible solution is needed which democratises access to the technology and allows all in the industry to benefit.

At present, AR is still regarded as a ‘big bet’; a risky investment with little in quantifiable evidence of the returns or how it can convert sales. However, allowing customers to visualise products in more detail before they buy them should help reduce cart abandonment because of purchase uncertainty or lack of information, and therefore increase conversion rates. Think of the difference between a retailer which has a single, simple image of a product on their website versus one which has multiple interactive images and video: better, more immersive content is king.

The creative possibilities of AR are endless, and how a retailer approaches and deploys the technology will likely offer major competitive advantage in the future. As well as placing products in a real-life space, as demonstrated by Amazon and Ikea, AR can also be used to enrich a smartphone camera feed with extra information – pointing a phone at an item of clothing in a shop to reveal style variations for example – as well as creating digital fitting rooms, driving consumers in-store through gamification, or displaying a greater range of stock than could fit in a physical store.

This link between the augmented (digital) and the reality (bricks-and-mortar touchpoints) remains a key focus for the retail industry, which has had to battle years of gloomy forecasts for high-street sales and footfall. AR helps narrow the gap by combining what the online and offline shopping experiences can deliver, and providing consumers with a more immersive omnichannel experience.

For the likes of pure-play e-commerce businesses like Amazon, AR delivers far beyond this. Despite not having a strong bricks-and-mortar presence, Amazon has recreated the shopping experience by allowing customers to visualise and experience products as they would on a shop floor. Retailers across the entire spectrum of the industry therefore have good reason to fear Amazon’s latest move!

An investment in augmented reality – especially in these early days – will make many in the industry understandably wary. A retailer which creates and launches its own AR solution will be hit with substantial R&D costs, as well as those tied to maintenance, and the complexity of creating associated digital assets.

The answer then is not to create and launch from scratch. A retailer may be an expert in selling and customer experience, but few will have AR know-how. As with many emerging technologies, the key is collaboration. Rather than assuming the mantle of R&D work, creating AR assets and updating and maintaining the technology, retailers can now look to white labelled solutions. These are accessible and affordable to all in the retail industry, rather than just those with the finances and skillset enjoyed by the likes of Amazon.

A white label AR app can deliver the same experience offered by the dominant players, allowing shoppers to point and place products from a retailer’s catalogue into their own home or space of their choice. The tool can be integrated into a retailer’s digital platform, and be fully branded with the retailer’s logo, colours, product categories and style.

Adopting white label AR solutions gives retailers the golden ticket needed to join the ranks of Amazon, levels the playing field, and delivers for both retailer and customer.

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