As e-commerce platforms continue to grow their reach among shoppers, physical stores are turning to augmented and virtual reality to keep pace with online retail.
The rise of internet shopping has sounded the death knell for many traditional retailers over the last few years and it’s easy to see why.
“American supermarket giant Walmart recently developed virtual aisles accessible through virtual reality (VR) headsets. Shoppers will be able to use VR to ‘grab' items, which will immediately be picked up from automated distribution centres and delivered to their doors,” says Mark Thomson, director of retail at Zebra Technologies, which provides the industry with enterprise solutions.
It’s never been easier to order shopping without having to get up off the sofa. And online sales are going from strength-to-strength, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics released back in January.
However, despite the fact that ordering online can be more convenient, brands are using immersive technology – VR and sister technology augmented reality (AR) – to create pre- and post-purchase journeys to keep shoppers coming back to brick-and-mortar stores.
For example, Heinz has previously enabled shoppers to scan ketchup bottle labels and then view recipes. Another example is Lego enabling people who’ve bought its products to see their creations come to life in AR. Then there’s Ikea’s AR app that places virtual furniture in a physical living room and also apps developed for big-name fashion labels that offer shoppers virtual changing rooms, so they can model clothes without undressing.
While the majority of these applications don’t require smartphone users to be in a physical store to benefit from them, they help to increase brand engagement and visibility.
“Brands and [brick-and-mortar] retailers will increasingly use AR and VR to improve the product selection experience and increase basket sizes and the number of items bought in a single purchase. Ultimately, generating more sales,” says Thomson.
Guiding the way
The reality, though, is that most shoppers won’t always want to use VR to try on new clothes or shoes – VR doesn’t solve a problem that seeing a product in a catalogue or the flesh can’t. And even though AR apps allow users to get an idea of the size of a sofa or table and what it would like in a certain space, they’ll still need to visit the store in person to see the furniture for themselves.
Even though there are limitations to brands using AR and VR to enhance engagement – some would say it’s a novelty – immersive technology can arguably clinch sales that might not have happened otherwise.
Beyond brand engagement and visibility, the real impact AR, in particular, is likely to have is making the brick-and-mortar shopping experience smooth and seamless, helping shoppers to move around a store quickly and funnelling them to the checkout in the shortest time possible.
A case in point is Dent Reality. Founded by Andrew Hart, the company is building an AR tool that will be used by retailers to guide customers around stores and push relevant product information to their smartphones based on their shopping list, product preferences or dietary requirements.
The tool uses computer vision technology to localise a user within a retail store or supermarket. From there, integrated store layouts and real-time stock information are used to show relevant product details and data, so the user can make informed purchasing decisions.
There are practical design challenges to consider. For example, people don’t usually have a hand free when shopping, and if they are looking down at their phone, then they’re likely to annoy their fellow shoppers by bumping into them.
“Of course shoppers won’t want to hold their smartphones up for prolonged periods, so it’s about getting the user experience [UX] right,” says Hart.
He continues: “I can’t stress enough how important it is that the public’s first experiences with AR are good ones. When the iPhone was first announced, there were some who were sceptical about the adoption of touchscreens, because their only previous experience of them was self-service check-in kiosks at airports, which can be horrible to navigate. I don’t want this to happen with AR, so people working in the space need to take time to create a compelling UX.”
If this sounds vague, that’s because Hart doesn’t want to go into specifics until the product has officially launched. A demo Dent Reality released in April does though suggest that visual cues will be used for short and quick AR engagement.
The company is currently in talks with a number of interested retailers – he’s unable to disclose details – who will be able to integrate the tool into their existing smartphone apps.
Hart strongly believes that location-based AR will be the technology that shapes the future of brick-and-mortar retail.
“Location-based AR is like giving people special powers. If someone’s lost in a shopping mall, do they want to try and navigate themselves using a paper map, or would they prefer to follow a virtual path in front of them? If they’re in a retail store, do they want to research each product to find out the nutritional information, or would they rather it just appear in front of them?” asks Hart, rhetorically.
“As we move towards a future of AR wearables, these new abilities that enhance and add context to the real world will increasingly become a core part of the experience.”
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