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UK Insights

Virtual and augmented reality in retail

Kirsty Cooke

Head of Digital Content, UK

Retail 11.01.2018 / 15:00


What do VR and AR offer in terms of enhancing the customer shopping experience?

Retailers are looking for new ways to stand out and aid product discovery in a crowding market – and technology is helping them elevate in-store and online experiences to that end.

According to Paul Chatalic, Project Executive at Kantar Consulting, there are two ways that immersive technologies such as AR can enhance the retail experience. ‘Firstly, they can add utility – retailers can use VR or AR as a tool that helps customers try and test products more easily, and in a more personalised way. Secondly, they can add an element of joy and surprise – completely new experiences that differentiate the brand from others.’

Kantar Consulting has identified three key areas where we are seeing the VR/AR trend in retail: for immersive marketing (creating a greater connection with the customer), aiding practical functionality (like trying on products without leaving your house), and where brands create virtual representations of their own stores (like Ted Baker did back in 2015).

Anusha Couttigane, Senior Analyst at Kantar Consulting, comments: ‘Product discovery is at the top of most retailers’ lists. Younger shoppers in particular are looking for cool new ways to discover products, as well as personalised experiences. Convenience is key too – shoppers want and increasingly expect a seamless experience across all channels.’

Brands using VR/AR to be more ‘useful’ include L’Oreal, Alibaba and Swarovski. The L’Oreal store in Paris features a Make Up Genius bar where women can virtually try on makeup through the Make Up Genius app on iPads; Sephora and Charlotte Tilbury have done similar things to great success, engaging shoppers and increasing dwell-time while reducing the need for lots of staff. Alibaba has deployed AI-enhanced mirrors to create on-screen product recommendations for shoppers. And Swarovski launched a VR shopping app in conjuction with Mastercard for the Atelier Swarovski home décor line, home accessories designed in collaboration with world-renowned architects and designers. The app immerses consumers in a tastefully decorated home where they can browse and even purchase the pieces with Masterpass, Mastercard’s digital payment service. The app not only lets people see what pieces look like in ‘real life’ (size and context) but the virtual and digital nature of the service means they can find out more about any item they ‘see’ very easily.

 Mastercard -swarovski3

Augmented or virtual reality has also been deployed to create a ‘wow’ moment, such as Galeries Lafayette’s development of a rollercoaster animation corner in Paris, with moveable chairs and virtual reality headsets, or Tommy Hilfiger offering customers the opportunity to virtually attend a fashion show presenting its new collection. Similarly, and in the vein of ‘immersive marketing’, Gucci trialled a VR film showcasing its pre-fall collection at a 70s style dance party – this could be viewed on Desktop or Mobile.

Of course, as with any technology, the results have been hit and miss. While several apparel retailers have experimented with virtual reality fitting rooms in stores, there could be a bigger opportunity for VR in online channels. Indeed, VR is increasingly important in ecommerce, as it helps overcome many barriers to purchase that exist in fashion and beauty – not being able to touch, feel or try on a product.  

The next big development in immersive technology in retail will likely make more use of customer preferences to personalise experiences. With the right data and tech, it’s possible to personalise experiences at scale – it’s easier to rearrange a virtual store according to previous purchase data than it is to run around a shop and move items as different people arrive. Again, Sephora has been good at this, offering personalised consultations on colour matches and so on. 

Couttigane comments: ‘At present much of this technology still largely functions as a marketing tool, establishing retailers who've adopted it as pioneers in customer experienceproviding “interesting” immersive experiences. Yet increasingly the technology is being deployed to create very practical omnichannel shopping solutions that enable customers to shop anytime anywhere with the same assurances as if they were in a physical environment. That’s one of the biggest benefits of the advancement of VR as a sales tool, giving it the potential to become a shopping channel in and of itself. 

 Augmented _Reality _for _e Commerce

Alexandre Thomas, a Director at Kantar Consulting, believes AR will be more useful than VR when it comes to shopping experiences – and will see more widespread adoption. ‘AR is a lot more useful to add a layer of info onto reality (and it has the power to be more magical too – just look at the magic leap concepts from a few years back). Furthermore, we’re already there anyway, we just need to make it more visual and responsive. But being able to look up stuff on your smartphone is exactly the same as having it overlaid onto what you’re looking at.’

Thomas believes virtual reality will mostly be used for entertainment purposes. ‘VR might have too big a physiological barrier to bigger adoption, beyond short bursts of entertainment, simply because our bodies, eyes and brains are not made to look at screens so close, for too long.’

‘For VR, we will see more research into the haptic side of things (for example, if my avatar enters a swimming pool in VR, I have to ‘feel’ wet, if it opens a door, I have to feel the doorknob in my hand, etc.), which may accelerate adoption and extend the current reach of the tech in terms of interested and potential audience, but is in its infancy, and still has a long way to go before it sees wider adoption. Let’s see what happens with Neuralink et al in the coming months and years, because that may be a big game changer: interfacing the whole brain with the machine makes VR possible without clunky hardware, and without the need for more or less effective haptic suits (which would look ridiculous too), and THAT redistributes the game completely.’ 

Source : Kantar Consulting

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