The COVID-19 pandemic crystallised the potential of virtual shopping — a concept that’s been around for a few years now, but only really gaining traction now that businesses and consumers can understand its application.

The dual reality of physical store lockdowns and the boom in online shopping meant augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are no longer fringe experiences for the tech-savvy, but instead, mainstream ways to shop in daily life. The technology underpinning it will keep growing in accuracy and usability, and consumers will continue to successfully adapt to changing methods of shopping. 

Appetite is growing among shoppers to engage in virtual shopping experiences — now it’s time for retailers to offer the experiences to match those expectations. A recent Shopify survey shows more than one-third of Australians will engage with augmented reality (AR) to purchase online this year. A further 29% of people said they’ll book an online or virtual appointment with store staff this year. 

For brands, the competition to stand out is fierce. There are more online retailers selling more products than ever before, with price undercutting a common practice to get ahead. The opportunity for brands to compete is on values, not price. 

With acquisition costs skyrocketing, businesses are investing in their brand and customer experience to survive. Today, we’re seeing an exponential rise of retailers offering attractive online experiences as they invest in both short-term performance initiatives and long-term brand building to create lifelong customers and brand evangelists.

As businesses invest in technology and infrastructure to embed their brand at every customer touchpoint, AR continues to lead the way in bringing products to life through interactivity and digital immersion.

It’s a spatial world — we’re just living in it

Data surrounding a fast-evolving trend like AR and VR continues to evolve as the application and adoption of these technologies grows. Shopify’s own data shows that it has strong potential, with the use of video lifting conversion by 60% over buyers interacting with static images and 3D content generating an average conversation lift of 94% for merchants.

What this proves is that consumers are more open and adaptable than we think about adopting new technologies, so long as the context is ripe for them to do so.

Current smartphone technology is a stepping stone to a more immersive and engaging experience for shoppers. As Australian’s increasingly turn from stores to smartphones, creating an experience for people to test a pair of new glasses or place furniture in a room using AR increases buyer confidence, reduces return purchases and showcases realistic and interactive versions of your products.

According to Accenture, 64% of Australia’s leading consumer brands – including Bunnings, Ikea, Dulux, L’Oreal, Estee Lauder and Sephora – are investing in AR experiences for their customers. However, it’s not just for the big end of town. We’re also seeing retailers on Shopify, such as Gunner Kennel’s use of 3D models for their pet crates increase conversions by 40%, and Australian eyewear retailer, Bailey Nelson, use AR try on features to boost domestic conversions by 400% and by 600% in Canada.

No need for intimidation

For businesses, the path to entry for AR and VR is nowhere near as steep as many think. Using a few very simple technologies, combined with killer photography, is all you need to create these experiences for your customers.

3D modelling, for example, is a hugely effective way to get started on an AR journey. 3D models are an opportunity for shoppers to envision a product as a whole, in different sizes, colours, and with different backdrops. In times gone by, it was necessary to send a product to a specialist 3D model developer, however, now retailers can easily create 3D models using widely available smartphone solutions and integrations provided by leading e-commerce platforms.

As with most things, early adopters of AR and VR will be the most successful in the long run. They’ll be the ones who establish early groundwork in the back end, and get their customer base on board with the spark of curiosity AR and VR can bring.

It may sound fantastical and hard to imagine, but the future is here. AR, VR, and 3D are already demonstrating many tangible benefits for ecommerce merchants ready to make the (small) leap.

James Johnson is director of technology services & strategic merchants for Shopify Asia Pacific.