Op-Ed: What Retailers Should Consider Before Using (or Losing) Augmented Reality

Op-Ed: What Retailers Should Consider Before Using (or Losing) Augmented Reality
Beauty

Author Ricky Bacon explains how before writing off AR altogether, retailers can consider using the technology by focusing on how it can help them meet their core customers' needs and preferences, ultimately serving to differentiate their brand

PSFK Op-Eds
  • 21 september 2018

When technologies take hold in the marketplace, it’s natural for their usefulness and promise to come under debate. There are optimists, and pessimists. And for augmented reality, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times. For some, AR is a game changer and will be used by a billion by 2020. By other accounts, it’s unproven and overhyped.

The “overhype” narrative seems to have quieted in 2018, but it hasn’t disappeared. A recent Forrester report contained insights that suggest retailers aren’t convinced by AR. My takeaways from the report are that many retailers say AR is over-hyped, limited budgets don’t allow for it and it won’t sufficiently solve customer problems.[1] With so many other tech investments to consider (platforms, site, mobile, social) AR will simply have to wait.

There are, however, some brands that have given AR a shot (and have been getting attention for it). They hail from cosmetics, clothing, furniture, interior design—categories where it helps to see a digital image superimposed on a room or an object.

Sephora and Converse, for example, have used AR to make virtual try-on experiences. Timberland and Topshop have designed virtual fitting rooms. Houseware and furniture brands like IKEA and Wayfair are using AR to let customers see a product in their home, in 360 degrees. Dulux, a U.K.-based interior paint brand, created a visualizer app that lets customers see a paint shade on their walls, in variable lighting, before they head home with three gallons of teal semi-gloss and their fingers crossed.

These early success stories, however, have something in common: They involve the “consideration phase” of the customer journey—the time where a potential customer evaluates, asks questions, debates one product vs. another and looks for the right specifications.

While these examples give credence to AR optimists, they could just as easily become grist for the pessimists’ mill. Why? Because if you sell coffee makers, flashlights, washing machines or silverware, you might look upon a cosmetics or interior paint brand and say, “Well, sure, it makes sense for them” (a sentiment likewise expressed by the retailers interviewed for the Forrester report referenced above).

But the core value of an AR investment—including its cost—can’t truly be known until retailers explore AR’s possibilities in a creative, customer-focused way.

Break Free of the “Consideration Trap”

If you’re a retailer with limited time and budget and you’re thinking of writing off AR, no one has a right to blame you. Your larger tech investments are unquestionably crucial. But take a moment (or a 20-minute meeting with your marketing team) and consider a few last things before you cross AR off your list. Above all, don’t let your thinking fall into the “consideration trap.” It’s fine to end up in the consideration phase, but you don’t have to start there.

For example, forget about your product for a moment, and simply keep your customer’s needs front and center. Think of ways to help them. A helpful AR experience is a winner no matter what it looks like. AR instruction manuals, for example, don’t have to look pretty, but, if embedded in your mobile app, they could lend a hand to your customer at a key moment.

And speaking of apps, when asked if they would be more inclined to download a manufacturer’s app if it came equipped with an AR experience that helped them operate their new product, 36%  of consumers said yes. While there will always be consumers who simply have no interest in downloading product apps, others can be swayed. So not only can AR help brands make their app more appealing and engaging, it could also deliver more value, particularly in the ownership phase.

But some problems are plainly universal—like finding an item in-store. That’s a problem that Lowe’s recognized when they used AR to create an in-store navigation app, answering the prayers of anyone who has ever gone stark raving mad trying to find that one, last, excruciatingly hidden item on their list.

Another strategy: Think like a digital native. Build.com is a perfect example. As a digitally native, online-only retail brand, they can’t abate the digital “touch and feel barrier” by falling back on a store locator. They must, in essence, build the store through immersive means. Attempting to create the most precise and accurate AR experience on the market, however, was not merely a technical necessity. It let them seize an opportunity to overcome the inherent limitations of physical environments as well. For example, every Build.com product is always in-stock, but those products are also interactive and ready for demonstration. Customers turn in situ interior lighting on and off, or see water flowing from superimposed faucets (at various temperatures and with different spray patterns).

Consideration is indeed an important facet of Build.com’s AR experience (like Wayfair or IKEA), but their success stems, in part, from how they connected their brand value to their core customer’s preference for a shopping experience that centers around them, rather than brick and mortar. They didn’t use AR to augment their brand; they used it to build their brand in a differentiating way. And that’s what makes any technology truly valuable.

While an AR-driven, store-building mindset can help a brand like Build.com flourish, the larger takeaway is that any retailer is free to think this way. The footwear brand Airwalk, for example, created invisible pop-up shops. While the shops were a bit of a stunt, it’s worth pointing out that geolocation allowed Airwalk to build their physical “shops” wherever they pleased. They put a pop-up shop (and their brand) in the pedestrian-packed, culturally iconic space of Washington Square Park, for free! That should give any retailer goosebumps.

[1] Witcher, Brendan, et al. (2018, May 18 [Updated: 2018, June 6]) “The Top Retail Technology Investments In 2018: Retailers Must Distinguish Hot From Hype In Tech Investments” Forrester. Retrieved from https://www.forrester.com

About the author: Ricky Bacon

Ricky is the Group Technology Director and discipline lead for Critical Mass‘ NYC office. He has over 18 years of technology experience and leads distributed teams in building highly polished and scalable digital experiences.  In the New York office, Ricky oversees technology on Citi, BMW, Norwegian Cruise Line, McKinsey and SAP. Ricky has held leadership positions at agencies and start-ups and owned his own consulting business where he helped start-ups create stable, scalable platforms using emerging technologies. 

When technologies take hold in the marketplace, it’s natural for their usefulness and promise to come under debate. There are optimists, and pessimists. And for augmented reality, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times. For some, AR is a game changer and will be used by a billion by 2020. By other accounts, it’s unproven and overhyped.

+apparel
+AR
+augmented reality
+beauty
+brand activation & immersion
+Grocery
+home
+op-ed
+Public
+retail
+Shopper education & assistance
+Shopper Marketing & Promotion

Learn About Our Membership Services

Need Research Help?
As a member you can ask us any research questions and get complimentary research assistance with a 4-day turnaround. Reports inclde stats, quotes, and best-inclass examples on research topics.
Remain Informed & Strategic
We publish several trends reports each month. By becoming a member you will have access to over 100 existing reports, plus a growing catalog of deep topical analysis and debrief-style reports so you always remain in the know.
See Trends Come To Life
Meet your peers and immerse yourself in monthly trend and innovation webinars and discounted conferences.
No search results found.