‘I would love to buy this corner table for our drawing room, but I am not sure if it would go with the color of the wall’, says my mom, a fifty-seven-year-old lady who had spent the past hour scrolling through the website of a leading online furniture retailer. For someone who had once completely deplored the idea of buying stuff online, her apprehensions had slowly given way to her graduation from a hesitant potential eCommerce customer to a full-fledged online shopper. It is neither about the lure of jaw-dropping discounts and exciting cashback offers, nor the sheer number of options anymore – the customer’s experience level has taken center stage. The next generation of online shoppers is already knocking at the doors of the eCommerce bigwigs, what next?
A 2016 study by Walker Sands, a PR Firm, suggests that the biggest impediment that customers face while buying products online is determining if the product that they are willing to put their money into, is the right product for them. This phenomenon is, what the experts call, the ‘imagination gap’. The evolution of the Augmented Reality (AR)-Virtual Reality (VR) space from a distant dream to actuality is bridging the same gap. While AR is an enhanced version of reality, of which the viral mobile game Pokemon-Go is the most evident example, VR is a computer-generated simulation of a real-life environment. Both are not two dissimilar sides of a coin, but two sides with a common goal: make more meaningful, memorable experiences for a digital consumer base.
In the mid-1990s, the retail giant Walmart missed the chance to hop on to the gravy train called the internet. Amazon took advantage of this fact and the former has since then tried to play catchup (Amazon eclipsed Walmart in terms of valuation in 2015). The current shift in consumer trend might not be as seismic as the advent of eCommerce but online retailers should be feverishly taking notes. The investment is still low while the scope of ROI is tremendous. So, how is mixed reality (combination of AR & VR) going to change eCommerce?
Offer a more compelling experience:
As mentioned already, the ‘imagination gap’ between a customer and the decision to buy a product online has always been extensive. Although online shopping does offer convenience and a huge catalog of products, the conversion rate (2% to 4%) is still diminutive as compared to that of a brick and mortar retailer. It is evident that photo and even video content is not adequate to help a customer with his/her indecision.
The primary drawback being that when a customer is shopping online, they cannot feel, try on or know how a product will fit in their home, often leading to uncertainty and consequently, cart abandonment. Earlier this year, Amazon picked up a 5% stake in apparel retailer Shoppers Stop, making it conspicuous that eCommerce companies are looking at bridging the gap between the online and offline retail world.
For example, earlier this year, French cosmetic retailer Sephora* launched a Virtual Artist mobile app to let its customers try different products on, from the convenience of their respective homes, marking their entry in the AR space.
Customization opportunities for both consumers and manufacturers:
In addition to offering a seamless visualization experience, mixed reality will assist customers in making more informed decisions about the products that they are looking to buy. AR & VR technologies can combine to solve a fundamental challenge: integrating the physical with the emotional into a buyer’s experience cycle.
While the customer explores all the options in terms of size, design and preferences, mixed reality will enable manufacturers to offer a more personalized experience based on their browsing and purchase history. The companies should aim at building a true omni-channel retail approach. Once the customer has had sufficient number of opportunities to ‘interact’ with the product, it will ensure a reduced return rate and an improved brand image for a retailer.
Ikea, a Swedish furniture giant, launched an app called Ikea Place* (built on Apple’s ARKit) which allows users to browse through their catalogue of sofas, armchairs and coffee tables and use the phone’s camera to visualize and place the furniture anywhere in the room.
Redefining advertising and marketing:
For the longest span of time, peer to peer product feedback has been key for all the products being sold online. With the traditional ways of advertising slowly slipping into obsolescence, brands are figuring out ways to create more unique and immersive campaigns. Since banner ads have a small attention-grabbing potential, companies are looking at investing in AR & VR to develop innovative, highly personal product awareness campaigns.
Companies are no longer interested in knowing just where their consumer is but also where the consumer’s attention is. AR-VR technology can be used to enhance a viewer’s experience and provide them with much more information than what a static advertisement can. Predictive analytics will enable marketers to unearth better selling points by gaining valuable data on the customers’ spending habits. Social media companies like Facebook and Snapchat can be leveraged to integrate AR into their respective platforms, giving advertisers a new channel to grab the audience’s attention.
British multinational fashion retailer Topshop used VR and offered its customers, a one-of-a-kind front-row view of the London Fashion Week from one of their flagship stores. Video below:
It is pretty evident that cohesion will be key for the retailers to build a relationship with their customers. The future lies in building an online experience coupled with the benefits of shopping from a retailer offline. The AR-VR technologies will have to face major challenges related to hardware, content and ultimately, the adaptation. A great degree of sophistication will be required to successfully integrate the AR-VR advancements into a customer’s experience cycle but they have a great potential to transform how a customer will buy a product in the future.