An article looking at AR and VR and asking what needs to happen for these technologies to become more widespread in retail eCommerce. 

 

A few years back, I was opining to pretty well everyone I came across that the future of homewares and furniture was all about augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Progressive retailers would develop apps that would allow customers to configure their own furniture and visualise exactly how it would look in their homes. We would be like Tom Cruise in Minority Report, using electronic gloves and virtual screens to create three-dimensional environments of our choice. But, despite so many consumers now having grown up having played immersive computer games, and advances in technology, this revolution has not really happened. I thought I’d use this article to try and understand why.

It’s worth starting by considering why AR and VR should be of value to retailers. There are several reasons. 

Customer engagement 

Retail websites on the whole are pretty boring. The structure of most is basically the same – home page leads to category page then to listing page and on to product page etc etc. The shopping experience is efficient, but does little to create interest or involvement. Introducing more immersive experiences can cause customers to stop and take notice. Once they’re in, you can entertain them, educate them, inspire them and invite their participation. This is likely to lead to more stickiness and to a greater feeling of connection with the brand. All of this should be good for conversion and retention.  

Visualisation

People, on the whole, are pretty poor at visualising a product unless they see it in the flesh. In furniture, for example, if the sofa you’re looking at is displayed in blue cotton, it’s hard to really get what it would look like in green velvet, even if a swatch is available. (At Heal’s, the best-selling sofa in-store was normally in the fabric variant we had in the shop.) It’s harder still to visualise how it would look in your sitting room. In clothing, we try stuff on not just to see if it fits, but mainly to see whether it looks good on us. In eyewear, a frame that looks great on the shelf may look awful on the face. The better visualisation offered by AR should help customers to better judge product suitability, and thus reduce the risk of them getting it wrong.

It also offers the opportunity to create more of one of the most elusive commodities in retail, inspiration. In most retail categories you’re selling a ‘dream’. It’s no accident that brand and product imagery features attractive, happy people in pleasant environments. Instead of being restricted to whatever you can afford to shoot or visually merchandise in your store, AR/VR allow you to display your product in unlimited environments. 

All this can add up to higher conversion and lower returns – a win-win for retailer and customer. 

Store efficiencies

One of the biggest costs in retailing is stock, particularly if you have physical outlets. Being able to display product virtually, allows you to be more efficient in terms of stock holding. You could also save on visual merchandising and product displays. Instead of being restricted to one ‘dream environment’ you could create several. You could offer personalised window experiences to passers-by. You may be able to save on service. If you had a virtual assistant, it could talk the customer through the features and options on your top products. 

VR can also enable you to offer the store experience without having lots of stores. Applications already exist that allow the user to navigate virtually round your physical store, and these can easily be made shoppable. There are also some decent virtual store solutions. The more you can bring the store experience to life, potentially the fewer the stores you need. 

Marketing opportunities

Most retailers spend a lot of time and money trying to understand where their customers are in the shopping journey, and what their propensity to purchase is. Users who enter into AR or VR environments will typically give you a whole lot more information about their purchase preferences and intent. This can be really helpful for any subsequent marketing.  

So, why don’t we see more of it?

With all these potential advantages it seems curious that AR and VR have not made greater inroads into digital retailing.  Here are some of the possible reasons: 

Experiences aren’t high enough quality. Many of the AR experiences developed to date have been built on the back of native iPhone or Android technology. Although the tech has improved progressively, the experience can still be buggy, particularly when scaling is involved. It’s also difficult to integrate the more complex functionality of the website into the AR experience. In the Heal’s AR sofa app, for example, users had to choose model and fabric before going to AR. Once in AR mode they couldn’t change either. We could perhaps have built something that would address this issue but the costs would have been eye-watering.  

Added to these, product image quality in normally poor, due to the need for speed in loading. At Heal’s we worked hard to create photo-realistic 3D images of our sofas, so it was galling to see them almost cartoon-like in the AR experience. Not the premium experience we were thinking of. 

It’s expensive to do it well. Anyone who plays computer games may wonder why it’s not possible to create similar experiences for retail. Unfortunately, even the cheapest 3D games cost hundreds of thousands to create, and the most successful have budgets bigger than Hollywood blockbusters. Creating interactive, immersive experiences is not a trivial matter and most retailers will consider that they have bigger priorities. 

Users are focused and/or lazy. The first book on online retailing to really break through was Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think. The central premise, which remains largely true today, was that any good website should let users do what they need to do as easily and directly as possible. It’s one of the reasons why retail websites are boring – users expect a certain structure, so it’s easier to stick with it than change it. AR and VR applications often sit outside of the normal flow and require effort. To justify the ‘distraction’ they have to give more reward to the user, whether it’s functionality or fun. 

So, what’s the way forward?

There are undoubtedly some examples of AR apps and tools that have proven successful, and not just in terms of generating good corporate PR. The basic criteria are relatively simple:  

  1. Does it help to solve a genuine user issue? and
  2. Is it easily usable and integrated into the user flow?

Here are some examples: 

Virtual try-on for glasses, e.g. Specsavers, Silhouette. If you do wear glasses it’s difficult to see what they look like on, even when you’re at the opticians. This is a genuinely useful application. You can also find virtual try-on on many cosmetics sites such as MAC Cosmetics and Maybelline, although I have to say that when I tried it on myself the results were not entirely convincing, not to say a little terrifying (think Heath Ledger as the Joker). The applications for watches and jewellery seem to me to be a little pointless, but perhaps they work. 

Zeekit’s solutions for clothing which include styling, fitting room and model switch were interesting enough that Walmart bought the company in 2021 and now use it on their site. It looks great, but perhaps it’s significant that Asos trialled this a couple of years earlier but no longer appear to use it. If someone can really crack the ‘will this look good on me’ question, it should create a big opportunity. 

Configuration tools for more complex purchases. Like many people, I purchased a garden outbuilding during lockdown. I also needed a shelving solution for a room in my house. In both cases I used online configuration tools (Lugarde.com for the shed and Tylko.com for the shelving). Many of the car manufacturers now offer excellent tools. In such cases, where standard size doesn’t work and configuration is required, users will put the effort. (NB. I’m not sure you can strictly class these as AR.)  

Perhaps the best execution I’ve seen of a virtual store is by Emperia, who have worked with a number of luxury brands, and recently raised a load of money in Series A. I’ve been told that these work for the brands – and the client list is certainly impressive – but they leave me a little cold. 

In interiors, sadly, there’s not much to write home about. At Heal’s we tried AR but it got no traction so we stopped offering it. We created virtual walk-throughs of our stores, using a technology that works superbly in estate agency, which made us happy but was little used. We built a sofa selector and a room planner, both of which were fun but peripheral. The thing that excites me most is the creation of virtual 3-D environments for product ‘photography’ and video. This could generate a range of fantasy locations, without the cost and hassle of having to do multiple photo shoots.  

And that’s about it. Three to four years back I would have said that this is the future, but now I’m not so sure. How fast things move in future will depend on the extent to which technologists and designers can understand what users really want and create experiences that really help and inspire. 

This piece was first published in Internet Retailing in Feb 2023