Last year, 2016, will undoubtedly go down as one of the most pivotal years in the history of virtual reality (VR). Major VR platforms, from the likes of Google, Facebook and Sony, were either promised or actually released, giving this new technology added credibility from these corporate heavyweights.
What’s more, devices that utilize virtual reality — and its cousin, augmented reality — have evolved from the dreams of tech enthusiasts to something your uncle can purchase from his local brick-and-mortar retailer.
Consumer demand, high-quality devices and market conditions have all aligned to make VR and AR the next major advancements in the tech world.
Investors, meanwhile, have also offered enthusiastic support for these technologies, pouring in $1.7 billion over the past 12 months. Look no further than the runaway success of Pokémon GO as an indication of how eager consumers are to embrace AR.
Ecommerce companies should be taking feverish notes: A recent demonstration of AR technology by Florida-based startup Magic Leap showed one way retailers might integrate AR technology into an e-commerce environment: The demonstration showed how a user could superimpose virtual models of lamps and other room décor atop a real-world dresser, with the digital objects shown to scale, to help the user determine how those items might look within the space.
So, the message here is that, far from just being a feature for games, AR may well up-end and upgrade the shopping experience as we know it. The cost of entry is still relatively low, and the potential benefits are outrageously high.
Meet them where they are.
About two decades ago, Walmart failed to recognize the potential of the internet. As a result, Amazon was able to claim a significant portion of the big box chain’s retail audience. The VR and AR boom might not be quite as transformational as the dawn of ecommerce, but retailers still can’t afford to ignore this potential shift in technology and consumer demand.
The biggest hurdle customers so often face is determining whether a certain product is right for them. AR offers shoppers the confidence that may motivate purchasing decisions. Retailers, then, should be looking for ways to integrate AR into their stores. That will allow customers to view the in-depth information available online — including reviews, related products and price — while simultaneously looking at the actual physical product via a smartphone.
More importantly, AR in particular can provide users with an in-store shopping experience, regardless of their location. Devices can superimpose 3D objects in various spaces, giving customers a chance to interact with digital renderings from the comfort of their own homes. IKEA and Converse, respectively, already allow users to envision pieces of furniture in their homes or shoes on their feet in real time using smartphone apps.
As more consumers opt for an authentic and enhanced digital shopping experience, retailers of all stripes will have to alter where and how they sell products.
Turn the “augmented” into reality.
It’s not enough to simply use AR in a trivial manner. Retailers must make it a significant component of marketing, sales and IT efforts to ensure it resonates with shoppers.
To do this, retailers have to do more than blindly throw darts at the AR wall; they need to consider the needs of customers and the goals of their companies. Here are some of those considerations:
Offer a useful experience. It’s easy to treat AR technology as a novelty or toy, but the platform allows you to deliver incredible value to undecided shoppers. While some organizations feel pressured to create their own unique take on AR, they might find it makes sense to invest in smaller companies to do the work for them.
For example, a Sephora app employs ModiFace technology to allow users to take a “selfie” and then apply a variety of cosmetic products to their faces. Instead of spending hours debating the merits of eyeliner options in-store, Sephora customers can narrow their choices from home and streamline the shopping process.
Add novelty to retail. Between physical and online marketplaces, intense competition is being waged within most verticals. Incorporating AR is an immediate way for retailers to stand out from the pack.
Eyewear retailer Warby Parker, for instance, differentiated itself from competitors by allowing shoppers to try items on before a purchase. Virtual shopping offers the same novelty, without any of the costs associated with shipping products to clients. The technology hasn’t been perfected, but the possibility of creating an avatar and having it try on digital clothing via something such as Wolfprint 3D is not far off. In fact, a 2015 study by Walker Sands showed that 35 percent of consumers surveyed said they would shop more online if they could interact with products virtually.
Allow users to customize. Retailers such as Nordstrom have distinguished themselves from competitors by offering a fully personalized shopping experience, guided by a knowledgeable curator who knows an individual shopper’s style, sizes and preferences. As a result, Nordstrom became famous for its customer service.
AR has the potential to deliver these personalized services to the masses. Users are hungry for this sort of digital customization, whether it be an app that allows them to test out different color combinations or a friendly AI offering clothing suggestions based on purchase history.
Those retailers that reap the biggest benefits of AR and VR will be the ones willing to invest resources early, and fully commit to the technology. Shoppers are anxious for the breakthrough that will finally remove uncertainty from the buying process. And AR has the potential to do just that, but only if retailers work to bring the technology into the real world.