As shopping habits transform, now is the time for retailers to embrace AR

Marie-Céline Merret Wirström
By Marie-Céline Merret Wirström | 7 May 2020
Marie-Céline Merret Wirström

By Marie-Céline Merret Wirström is executive producer at MediaMonks Australia

The rate of hyperadoption in digital retail has accelerated in recent months: some Australian businesses have achieved a staggering 300% to 400% growth in online sales channels due to consumer need amidst the closing of brick-and-mortar locations.

As consumers adapt to the necessity and convenience of discovering, researching and purchasing online, retailers must also harness this moment to bridge the online and offline shopping experiences.

Econsultancy reports that “47% of respondents from large enterprises say that in the past several weeks, they have observed product or service innovations at their organizations as a result of the outbreak, while 49% have observed innovation in marketing messaging or branding that they might use [post-COVID-outbreak].”

One such innovation that marketers are exploring is augmented reality (AR), specifically for industries in which meeting in-person was previously thought to be critical in making a purchasing decision—take luxury retailers, commercial and residential real estate, car buying and more.

But there is a caveat: Australian retailers that are just beginning to consider how immersive digital experiences fit within their existing (or reinvented) retail strategies must be braver in their AR investment.

The bar is already set high in other markets—particularly in the US—and standing out against competition requires businesses to be open to taking real risk in their innovation efforts. Don’t treat technologies like AR as another box to tick off the list as a gimmick; instead, strive to offer immersive solutions that really move the needle.

While brands can stand to be more daring in their commitment to digital, rest assured that crafting meaningful AR activations is manageable when treated strategically and with a sense of purpose. Here’s how—and why—retailers in Australia can drive big impact through simple yet effective AR activations.

Offer an Intuitive Digital Shopping Experience

Many consumers are already familiar with AR technology thanks to the ubiquity of AR filters in camera apps like Instagram or Facebook Camera. In fact, Facebook also offers AR-based advertisements within the newsfeed, allowing customers to “try out” products virtually—for example, testing lipstick shades using the front-facing camera.

The technology links the convenience of shopping from home with the ability to inspect, explore and assess products on a store shelf. This offers a comfortable middle ground for consumers who want to bring the retail experience closer to home, either out of personal preference or due to a need for contactless shopping solutions.

Retailers are also primed to become the next big media platforms for brands to tell their stories, according to insights from the Forrester report, “Retailers: You're The Next Media Moguls.”

“Shopping is fragmented and the shopping journey isn't linear, but consumers are nonetheless likely to discover and research high- and low-consideration products in retail stores and on retail websites,” writes Forrester VP, Principal Analyst Sucharita Kodali.

“As sources of information, retailers like Amazon, Best Buy, Target, and Walmart know they are well positioned to tell brand stories to these shoppers on their and other websites.”

Big-box retailers and leading ecommerce platforms can transform the shopping experience and support the businesses they represent by offering such highly personalized digital experiences. By baking AR into its app, for example, Amazon enables brands to engage with customers while they’re already in the mindset to shop. But perhaps more importantly, these experiences build a personalized connection and emotional resonance.

Not only can you try something on at home, but you can easily assess how well the item matches up with what you already have. The emotional impact of being able to connect with the product personally and envision how it fits within your life (as opposed to flicking through images featuring a model that may look nothing like you) is powerful.

Streamline the In-Store or Showroom Experience

While the immediate benefits of AR are clear to at-home shoppers, the technology can enhance and streamline the brick-and-mortar retail experience as well. Examples include wayfinding toward specific products via a mobile camera or offering AR directories that may make it easier to find specific stores and departments. AR product demonstrations like those mentioned above serve a purpose in-store, too, offering a high-tech alternative to display products or expert-led demos, enabling an overall contactless shopping experience.

Furthermore, as consumers go online to make quick purchases, we expect to see retailers in APAC shift toward providing services, not just sales, including in-store augmented reality experiences that entertain and inspire.

According to eMarketer, 98% of retailers in Australia, the UK and US believe having AR in-store will increase foot traffic, but only 11% currently feel their staff is equipped to give their customers personalized experiences. Building an in-store AR strategy is a great opportunity to attract consumers and provide them with the personalized, one-to-one experiences they crave.

Supporting these technologies establishes a long-term strategy for real estate businesses to activate spaces and build a sense of placemaking for their retail tenants. Similarly, 3D content offers an engaging way for these businesses to entice new tenants: for example, offering an AR overlay that virtually furnishes the space, adds data visualisations or lets users see the effect that time of day has on lighting. In response to social distancing, for example, venues are building digital twins that let online users truly inhabit spaces digitally. Such features would also prove useful to both retail and residential real estate.

Focus on Simplicity and Efficiency in Building AR Experiences

For brands that are experimenting with AR for the first time—either as one-off campaigns or as a sustained feature in an ecommerce platform—it’s important to keep things simple. The most complex and feature-rich AR experiences require users to download and install a brand app, which many users may be unwilling to do. It’s critical for consumers to seamlessly enter an AR experience, and downloading an app is a huge barrier of entry. Instead, retailers may consider web-based AR experiences that plug in directly with an existing ecommerce platform with just a simple tap.

This method does provide a caveat: web-based AR must remain light and simple for users to activate it without a download. But even the most simplistic AR experiences can be effective for driving digital engagement. Being able to see a product in 3D in high resolution is all you need, and from there you can expand to include specific features or variations in product. That’s just a bare minimum approach, but it’s already so much more effective than looking at a flat image or reading product specifications.

In addition to the note on simplicity discussed above, replicating products in AR or other 3D content (like WebGL experiences or even VR) doesn’t need to require significant cost or effort. We’ve found that brands can build impactful CGI experiences using existing CAD assets, for example. If you already have the geometry there, you don’t have to spend too much effort to optimise and input into AR.

Augmented reality remains an efficient and effective way for retailers and real estate businesses to, well, augment the digital experience by building personalized impact. By integrating AR features natively into an ecommerce platform or even in a store, businesses can bridge the gap between online and offline shopping, providing a middle ground that accommodates the shifting needs of consumers.

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