Augmented Reality and How it is Helps Retailers Grow Their Business

Augmented Reality (or just “AR”) is not a new concept. In Retail, AR made its first appearance in the early 2010s. The prospect of AR in retail was always exciting, but the technology was the major bottleneck. In the following ten years since its introduction, the technology environment is very different. Powerful smartphones, fast mobile internet, platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, and Google with built-in AR technology, and specialized technologies like LiDAR and SLAM are advancing AR with fast wireless internet. Social media platforms with built-in WebAR, LiDAR, and SLAM have begun to advance the AR experience towards the holy grail of any technology, where it drives sales rather than drawing attention to itself.

That’s not to say that AR isn’t driving engagement and sales already. Retailers are already creating user experiences with AR that are driving engagement and sales significantly. These experiences are at every stage of the customer journey, from awareness creation and activation to sales transactions and beyond, both in online and offline channels. The top three picks for how AR is helping retailers grow their business:

1.AR Events
Marketing events can be grand things, like major movie productions or like modernized versions of medieval country fairs where people congregate to show off their best work to willing audiences. The problem is, these are physical events that translate rather poorly to be televised or broadcast using traditional methods. Enter the AR event.

Recent events like the Pandemic, on the one hand and the emergence of technologies like 5G on the other are enabling previously impossible events, like marketing events experienced remotely in Augmented Reality. This development is still early in its evolution. The first virtual catwalk of a supermodel at a major fashion show happened just about a year ago. Since then, Vogue Singapore, Dior, Armani, and many other high fashion brands and events have adopted AR as a significant or even central feature of their user experiences.

AR isn’t limited only to the fashion industry. As live events continue to get canned around the world, an entire industry has sprung up offering AR conferences and expos for all sorts of industries. Such events offer a great way to continue interacting with industry contacts and discover the latest and greatest in one’s field of interest. They are also much cheaper than physical events. With better technology like 5G and more realistic digital renders, AR meetings and conferences will surely play a major role in corporate events in the years ahead. At the moment, it is helping retailers stick to their marketing calendars in a way never possible before.

Figure 2: AR Conferences and Expo experiences like this one may not look like much yet, but they are about to take the world by storm

2.Product Visualization and Customization
Of all AR applications, this category has received the most attention, and with good reason. For a long time now, online retailers and shoppers have been aware of and have lived with a big flaw in the shopping experience- the inability to trial products before purchase. While the current state of AR cannot solve this problem completely, especially regarding products where feel, smell, or touch is very important, it can certainly address the “look” part of “look & feel” through realistic, real-time renders. This has already become important in the online beauty, jewellery, and footwear retail spaces. The real estate, interior decoration, furniture, and automotive industries have also adopted AR with enthusiasm. Other consumer goods categories, from Food & Beverage to sports gear and adventure, are experimenting with AR to improve user engagement on roads, in shopping centers, and even at home.

AR is also being adopted by malls and supermarkets to attract buyers in a variety of methods. While some sellers prefer Spatial AR that guides shoppers inside stores, others like Walmart and Carrefour prefer AR to create immersive experiences that improve activation or interaction with special signage that gets shoppers to walk around and discover more goods inside the physical stores.

Figure 3: Virtual “try-on” apps have come to define AR in retail, like this one for furniture.

Figure 4: Retailers and supermarkets are experimenting with Spatial AR technology to create personalized shopping experiences.

3.Gamified Social Experiences
Remember those big-name bookstores from the 90s (read Barnes & Noble) where you could browse as long as you wanted, buy a coffee, even play a boardgame? Now imagine that in virtual space. Gamified social experiences are the next big thing in Augmented Retail. Brands like Estee Lauder, Burberry, Gucci, and many others are partnering with platforms like Snapchat to create video apps, mobile game arcades, and virtual storefronts to align with a lifestyle that Burberry’s SVP of Digital Commerce, Mark Morris calls “…living in a gamified environment both online and offline”.

It is an exciting idea designed to appeal to younger shoppers who frequently switch between shopping, work, grabbing a coffee, and playing a game with friends from the comfort of their homes. In the near future, retailers and brands expect to roll out full-fledged virtual closets globally in what promises to elevate online retail from “fun with shopping” to “shopping fun”- the ultimate shopper’s dream!

4.Retail of virtual products
It would definitely be negligent on our part if we didn’t at least give a nod to the phenomenon of virtual products retail. If you have no idea what that is, you are obviously not an avid gamer. In short, virtual products refer to digital renders meant for use or possession inside virtual environments but paid for with real money. Think digital renders of bags, shoes, swords, art, and even digital “skins” for users’ characters in massive multiplayer online games. Before you dismiss this as a gag or fad, consider this: By 2022, the global market for digital products like skins is expected to cross $50 billion. In May 2021, a limited edition digital Gucci bag sold for over $4,000- a full $700 more than the real thing!

Figure 5: This virtual artwork sells for $10,000 real-world dollars as artists and marketers find new ways to express themselves (Artsy/KAWS)

Figure 6: Virtual Goods are the hot new trend to buy and gift. Seen here: a genuine original sculpture by Louis Vuitton, shown alongside real life gifts (XRGoesPop)

Conclusion
Augmented Reality is about adding richness to users’ experience of the real world, including in their shopping lives. As technology develops, the sky is the limit in retailers’ imaginations in creating interesting new use cases to drive engagement and sales. For retailers in the 2020s and beyond, AR will have to be an important consideration of their digital strategies. Manipal Digital Systems regularly works with retailers of all sizes and maturity of AR to select, create and deploy the right set of digital assets and experiences that can differentiate retailers from their competitors. Reach out to us to get a free consultation or just pick our brains for what’s right for you!

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