In the past several years, a number of retail stores have introduced augmented reality-based services to enhance consumers’ shopping experience.
Initially, some retailers used the technology as a promotional element — allowing shoppers to unlock the different powers of Marvel’s Avengers while walking down Walmart store aisles, for example, or scan a box in a Lego Store to see a 3D depiction of the model inside.
Today, a new wave of retailers is releasing AR-enabled tools that have been designed with a more practical goal: making it easier for customers to find, evaluate and ultimately buy items, both in-store and online.
More Design Options, Recognition Boost Retailers' Use of AR
The 2016 launch of the Pokémon GO app, which the developer says surpassed more than 500 million downloads within a few months, likely helped fuel AR’s popularity — or at least awareness of the technology — in recent years.
Whether or not consumers have directly experienced augmented reality, many know it exists. Indeed, 74 percent now expect retailers to offer some kind of AR element, according to a Digital Bridge survey released in September.
Numerous new AR tools have cropped up following the release of smartphones embedded with AR platforms such as Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore in the past year, which gave developers additional resources to create robust AR experiences.
“Consumers are now seeing the benefits of being able to place objects — like furniture — over a picture of the environment in front of them and are increasingly expecting retailers to offer them the ability to do this,” says Digital Bridge CEO David Levine.
A number of new retail-sector offerings, such as cosmetics, allow customers to visualize how potential purchases will be used. The Benefit app helps cosmetics buyers test out eyebrow shapes, for example, and Sephora’s Virtual Artist projects make-up artist-designed looks onto users’ faces.
Some clothing retailers, such as Gap, offer apps that let customers see what outfits would look like without actually trying them on. The retailer says the app was created in response to the fact that “technology continues to change the way customers engage with brands, browse products and shop.”
AR Can Facilitate the Way Consumers Move Through Stores
Some companies are also using augmented reality to enhance customers’ in-store experience. MAC Cosmetics, for instance, added virtual mirrors in U.S. brick-and-mortar locations last year for customers to try on eye and other looks using live video images of themselves, eliminating the need to repeatedly wipe off and reapply make-up.
Other retailers, including Walgreens, have turned to AR in recent years to help shoppers physically navigate stores using apps that layer product location and sale notifications over images of the store’s aisles. The app helps the drugstore chain provide added convenience by simplifying store visits and saving customers time.
AR Still Has Room to Grow in Retail
AR’s adoption hasn’t been immediate in retail — or many other industries. According to a survey released in April from ARtillry Intelligence, in partnership with Thrive Analytics, only about a third (32 percent) of consumers have used mobile AR apps.
More than a third of IT decision-makers, however, say developing augmented reality mobile apps should be one of the highest priorities to evolve the brick-and-mortar digital experience, according to a recent Riverbed survey.
Research conducted by two retail-sector analysts suggests AR experiences, like the app early-adopter American Apparel offered several years ago, showcasing pricing, color choices and other details when in-store signage was scanned, may particularly resonate with customers. A 2018 Accenture study found that 61 percent of consumers want to use AR (and virtual reality) to visualize how clothing might fit.
How retailers capitalize on AR’s potential remains to be seen. However, Accenture predicts it is "likely that more and more retail companies will be taking advantage of augmented reality to drive customer engagement to new levels" — a move that could have a positive outcome for both customers and retailers.