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How virtual and augmented reality are actually reshaping retail

 

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Consumers have more options for shopping than ever before. They’re looking for meaningful experiences from retailers, and if you can’t deliver, they’re going to find a retailer who can. Products are no longer the defining factor that set retailers apart. Why would they be, when consumers can purchase similar items from multiple retailers?

This presents an exciting opportunity for both consumers and retailers. Until recently, retailers have been constrained by the boundaries of media such as print advertising, TV and even web and mobile experiences. The rapid advancement of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies offer retailers the chance to go beyond those boundaries, engaging consumers with brands in their own environments.

Familiar yet time-consuming tasks like buying soap, physically trying on clothes, or guessing how a piece of furniture will look in your home are giving way to innovative, enriching and consumer-focused experiences that are engaging and fun—and add real value to the shopping experience.

The ‘big bang’ of AR has already begun, with companies like Microsoft, Sony and Apple, which recently launched its ARKit for augmented reality apps, all throwing considerable research dollars behind AR and VR.

At the Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition, Imran Ansani, principal manager of innovation for Walmart Global Ecommerce, predicted that “within five years, the industry for AR and VR will grow almost 200-fold”. And more importantly, VR and AR create the meaningful experiences that consumers are looking for. Ansani predicts that VR and AR will have a real commercial impact for general retail somewhere around 2020.

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So it won’t be long before both technologies reshape retail as we know it. But how?

Understanding the difference

For many, the terms AR and VR can be confusing. So what is the difference? AR is any technology that overlays digital information onto a real-life setting, typically through a screen or device. VR doesn’t try to overlay digital information or augment reality; instead, it replaces it entirely, often through a headset worn by the user.

Facebook’s Oculus Rift headset is an example of VR, while Google Glass was an early attempt by Google at bringing AR to consumers. Other, albeit rudimentary, examples of AR include Snapchat’s ‘filters’ and Yelp’s ‘Monocle’ feature, which lets you view businesses around you by using the camera on your device and pointing it at your surroundings.

But perhaps the best example of AR to date is Pokémon Go, the app that took the world by storm last year. Kids and adults across the globe were outside trying to ‘catch’ Pokémon that popped up on their phones as they explored their surroundings using a combination of the screen and a map.

Virtually endless possibilities

Pokémon Go is an excellent example of the gamification of AR, but what are the use cases for retailers?

AR could enable supermarket consumers to identify products without allergens, or quickly scan for preferred brands or deals. Consumers shopping for apparel could virtually try on items and even share them socially before making a purchase.

Some retailers are already implementing this technology. Womenswear brand Rebecca Minkoff used AR during its New York Fashion Week show last year to let women ‘try on’ the styles for themselves using an app called Zeekit.

Gap launched a new virtual dressing room app in collaboration with Google that uses AR to let shoppers try on clothes without having to step into a store. After inputting your measurements and height, the app shows what each size garment looks like on different body sizes. The technology gives customers incredible autonomy during the shopping experience and is a result of the brand exploring new ways to make the purchasing experience effortless and add value to the customer.

Changing the way we shop

There’s no denying that AR and VR will change the way we shop. How many hours of your life have you spent in fitting rooms? Imagine if you could have back all the time you spent in those cramped little rooms trying on endless piles of clothing. Surely there is an easier way?

With AR/VR, for example, instead of trying on multiple outfits or individual items of clothing, you could simply walk up to a mirror, select all the clothes you want to try and the mirror would display exactly what your selections look like on you. It’s the ultimate form of ‘try before you buy’.

Who wouldn’t want to try on a pair of shoes or jeans or even see how a piece of furniture looks in their home before they purchase?

Experiences like these are not only powerful, they’re effective and very personal. That’s why AR and VR technologies are so important; they offer greater value to customers through the dynamic delivery of personalised and contextual content.

While AR and VR can seem intimidating, when you really think about it, they are simply natural extensions of the way consumers interact with content and products. As Ansani from Walmart put it: “We started off with images online and then we graduated to videos. We have had 360-degree spins and 3D playable models, and now we’re moving toward an AR and VR experience.”

Consumer-driven experiences

Consumers are no longer satisfied by shopping experiences that only skim the surface—they want to interact with all their senses. And every time a customer engages with a new and improved shopping experience, their expectations reach a new, higher level across the board.

AR and VR can provide a more consumer-driven experience and give consumers a better understanding of your product. These technologies should help provide experiences that are personalised and build a relationship with the consumer—creating loyalty and encouraging them to want to have the experience again. As these technologies become more mainstream, consumer shopping experiences will continue to change and grow.

AR and VR are the next step for retailers. Consumers are ready. Are you?

virtual and augmented realityShannon Ingrey brings more than 15 years of experience in retail marketing, sales and management to his role as general manager of Oracle + Bronto APAC, a cloud-based commerce marketing automation platform with offices in Sydney, New York, Los Angeles, Singapore, Toronto and London. 

 

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