How Augmented Reality Is Helping Define the Future of Shopping

Author

Mike O'Toole, Contributor

September 30, 2014

A recent Unconventionals episode featuring Story, the New York City retailer whose business model mashes up store, magazine, and gallery, caught the eye of Francesca Nicasio. Francesca is a retail expert and author from Vend, and wrote this guest post on how other retailers are leveraging online channels to enrich in-store experiences.

There’s a lot of talk about how retailers should bridge offline and digital channels, and for good reason. As consumers become more accustomed to using multiple devices to research, browse, and buy merchandise, merchants who want to stay competitive will need to find creative and useful ways to interact with shoppers across different channels.

Plenty of products and services already enable them to do this. Endless aisles, for instance, let shoppers browse products that aren’t available in stores using tablets and kiosks, while online-to-offline services such as in-store pickups and returns help merge the online and offline shopping experience. As great as they are, however, these tools and services can’t blend the digital and offline realms quite as well as augmented reality.

AR uniquely bridges the gap between the physical and digital by enabling virtual objects to coexist in the user’s physical environment.  Besides generating buzz, it has practical uses, aiding users during their shopping journeys.

Juniper Research estimates that 60 million users across smartphones, tablets, and smart glasses will utilize AR this year; usage is expected to increase to 200 million by 2018. As it becomes more accessible, affordable, and widely adopted, merchants are well advised to consider investing in AR for several purposes, including:

Creating store attractions

Brick-and-mortar retailers need to turn their locations into destinations and deliver experiences that other retail channels can’t match. AR helps merchants do this. With it, they can bring digital elements to life and create attractions that customers can interact with.

Consider Office Depot. For this year’s back-to-school season, the retailer partnered with alternative pop rock band R5 to launch an AR campaign.

Shoppers who download the company’s official app can point their phones at interactive displays in Office Depot and Office Max to see a video of R5 overlaid by the app. They can pose with the video, save the photos within the app, and then easily share them with their friends.

Office Depot launched a similar campaign last year when it partnered with pop band One Direction. Users were able to bring product images to life using the company’s mobile app, which also unlocked exclusive content. The campaign resulted in 150,000 downloads of the app and generated more than 2.5 billion social media impressions.

Clearly, the retailer hopes to generate the same level of success this year. Hard data is yet to be released, but it looks like the campaign gained quite a bit of attention on social media.

Aiding shoppers

But it isn’t just about creating hype or drawing people into the store. Some retailers have found that the technology can have practical uses for shoppers.

Sephora, for instance, recently added an AR-enabled mirror in its Milan location that lets customers virtually try on various shades of makeup, allowing them to preview how the cosmetics will look without going through the trouble of applying and removing different products.

Meanwhile, Walgreens is currently testing Google’s Project Tango 3D AR technology to help shoppers navigate its stores. Project Tango incorporates a 3D map of the location and overlays navigational instructions onto the mobile screen, so shoppers can find the aisles and products they’re looking for.

Caveat: AR shouldn’t work alone

AR by itself won’t revolutionize retail. Yes, it can increase traffic and bring about interesting experiences, but merchants shouldn’t rely on the technology alone to engage and convert shoppers.

A store planning to use AR to generate in-store traffic, for example, should make sure customers have a reason (aside from the attraction) to stay in the store and shop. This can be accomplished through compelling offers, with convenient in-store services, or simply by offering a great product selection.

Additionally, AR campaigns work best when they tie in with other channels. Take the Office Depot campaign. The retailer didn’t just build an interactive display—it integrated the campaign with social channels so users could post their AR-generated photos via Twitter and Instagram, paving the way for more interactions and shares.

Retailers intending to utilize AR should see to it that the campaign is integrated across different channels. This will give them better control over the user experience and help their campaign gain more steam.

Bottom line

AR campaigns aren’t just good for press releases and hype. There’s a reason why Google’s invested so much in Glass and why Microsoft Kinect is gaining traction outside the gaming industry. Consumers want to merge the digital and physical realms. More retailers should recognize this and find ways to use AR to their advantage.

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