Mark Steel, digital director of Sainsbury’s Argos, tells Chloe Rigby how the retailer is using a full range of merchandising tools, from quality images, product videos and reviews to augmented reality, to explain its products to shoppers.
Shoppers in the market for a television ahead of this year’s World Cup have been able to try out how the model they’re thinking of buying would look in their home – without ever leaving the house.
Using augmented reality (AR), now available in Argos’ mobile app, they’ve been able to see it, via their smartphone screen, in pride of place in their room of choice.
“This was very much designed around the customer’s needs,” says Mark Steel, digital director at Sainsbury’s Argos. “We know that bigger and bigger TV sizes are becoming so popular with our customers. We’re seeing an increasing number of TV sales in giant sizes and the big question is, ‘Will it fit nicely in my home, on the wall space I have for it?’. The AR is focused on showing the life-size fully-to-scale 3D television on your wall at home, and we even built the capability of being able to play videos on that TV, so that you get a really lifelike experience rather than a black rectangle on the wall.”
Television is the latest category to get the augmented reality treatment from Argos. The retailer can also show what a sofa would look like in a room, and what Lego models look like when built – and how they fit the available space. “Being able to see the Millennium Falcon from the latest Star Wars film fully assembled and actually animated in my son’s bedroom so that we could look at that together, dad and son, and see that product come to life, it really helps to understand whether that’s something they’re going to play with, and if it’s going to be good value in terms of a purchase as a parent,” says Steel.
“It was about trying to take the benefits that great technology and smartphone technology offered and turn it into a really great shopping experience for our customers.”
Argos started looking at the possibilities of AR when Apple and Google unveiled the functionality for their iOS and Android, respectively, phones. As yet, RetailX research for this IRUK Top500 Merchandising Performance Dimension suggests, only 3% of IRUK Top500 retailers are using AR in their mobile apps. Steel suggests that’s because the Android and iOS smartphones that have the technology are still relatively new to the market, and so many retailers may find there’s not as yet the critical mass of consumer demand to justify the investment.
“One of the benefits we have at Argos is because we have our own in-house technology colleagues we can very much get a head start on new technology by getting to it early. It can be tricky, technically challenging, but we try to challenge ourselves with customer outcomes in mind – experiences that are useful and meaningful for our customers rather than just technology for the sake of it.”
As yet, AR is still an emerging technology, but the Argos reasoning for using it is the same as its reasoning for using quality images, product videos and more. Given that 60% of Argos sales start online, and given that more than 70% of those sales take place on smartphones, and given that Argos was the first retailer to turn over more than £1bn from mobile commerce, it’s “not a ‘nice to have’ but an essential”, says Steel. “If you think about it, a mobile smartphone is really like having a department store in your pocket. We’re there at the touch of a finger or at a word, increasingly, now. Smartphones have become more and more powerful - we’ve had lots of really talented colleagues thinking about how do we use all that technology in that tiny device to make it easy to shop.”
But the mobile phone presents a challenge in its own right. “There’s limited real estate to give customers a really immersive experience,” says Steel. “We have worked really hard as retailers to make it easier for customers, to make a really seamless, connected experience for them to shop. I think it’s really important to convey the value in a product. You get customers to the information that they need really quickly.
“For us, alongside, AR, we are spending a lot of time working on some of the fundamentals of mobile retailing, having really clear descriptions, getting customers to product pages really quickly, not putting too many steps in the journey, not making it difficult for customers to navigate and browse the site, particularly on mobile – it’s very important for us.”
How those elements are used, says Steel, can vary depending on the product. People buying electricals may be more interested in dimensions and technical specifications, but those shopping for clothes want a very different experience. “We recently launched the Tu clothing brand at Argos - it’s part of the Sainsbury’s brand and the biggest clothing brand in the UK by volume.
Shopping for clothing and fashion is very different from shopping for TVs or Lego so we had to think really carefully about how we designed an experience that would be seamless and easy to use but would also create an emotional engagement in a category that would be more aesthetic, about look and feel, emotionally driven. We make sure they have really large images and text is a little bit more secondary in a category like clothing because how it looks is so much more important.” Catwalk videos are set to come soon; by using them the retailer aims to show how clothes look when they’re on, and being worn.
Conversely, says Steel, “In our consumer electronic categories a lot of the products look the same so imagery is still important, but you want to highlight the tech specifications of the product, including memory size, screen size and all those features and benefits are far more important.”
At the same time, he says, it’s important customers understand how to shop with Argos and see a consistent approach that makes it easier for them to do everything they need to do at once.
“With the hot weather we’ve had recently, lots of customers have been buying fans from us and we noticed they then went on to purchase extension leads, which might make sense in terms of where you want to position the fan in your home. On mobile we just made it easier by adding in an additional piece of merchandising to help customers just jump straight into the extension lead category rather than having to go back and try and navigate via browse.”
Argos stands out in IRUK Top500 research for its performance on its mobile app, which enables shoppers to share their products reviews and ratings as well as seeing the products that others liked on social media. Steel points to the 2m reviews that its products now enjoy – and notes that they can only be submitted by people who have bought. Shoppers are not only willing to share their opinions via reviews and ratings, but also post their own product reviews and unboxing videos either directly on the website or to its social media channels.
“I think customers are increasingly prepared to share their feedback with retailers, whether directly on their site or through social media. I think increasingly, customers value other customers’ feedback more than they do the information that they get from brands. I think it’s the digital equivalent of word of mouth, at the school gate, or wherever it might be. We’re seeing that increased participation from our customer growing on our website.”
Argos is set to continue evolving the customer experience and, says Steel, its fast-expanding in-house team – where currently a further 150 software engineers and IT specialists are being recruiting to add to a team of 300 – is constantly looking at what new technologies might help. It is currently developing voice commerce experiences that are being tested in-house ahead of any customer launch.
“We are thinking really carefully about what the right application will be for retail for voice, and we have some voice experiences that we’re testing with colleagues at the moment so that we can make sure it’s absolutely right before we launch anything with customers.
That will be technology that customer will increasingly adopt over time and will want to interact with brands like Argos through voice an either through smart speaker devices such as Google Home devices that many people are already got, or, through mobile phones. Increasingly smartphones come ready to go with voice assistants such as Siri in iPhone and Google Assistant in Android phone.
There’s an absolute opportunity to harness that voice technology through a smartphone and turn that into a really helpful shopping experience for shoppers of Argos and of retailers more generally. We’re putting a lot of work into that.”But, as Steel says, it’s important to ensure that this is technology that serves the customer, rather than technology for its own sake.