Opinions Updates

AR: When offline meets online

Pico+ Europe general manager, Caroline Bee, explains how augmented reality technology is transforming the retail sector – and why event planners should take note.

The technology of e-commerce has proved the undoing of traditional bricks-and-mortar retail over the past decade. But another technology – augmented reality (AR) – now looks primed to be its saviour.

Consumers seem to agree on the vast potential of the combination of AR and retail; Insights from Google revealed that 61 per cent of users said they would prefer to shop in physical stores that offer AR.

AR looks ready to lead retail’s fight back against e-commerce. How will this digital-physical partnership actually work?

Leveraging the strengths of two worlds

Bricks-and-mortar retail lost ground to e-commerce giants such as Amazon because the advantages of the latter (shop-anywhere convenience, easy access to extensive product information, product feature and price comparisons, product reviews) outweighed those of the former (a tangible shopping experience, with tangible products to see, feel, try and take home).

The ‘pain point’ for bricks-and-mortar retailers is obvious – and some like Zara, Lacoste and American Apparel have already responded with AR apps. As well as augmenting the in-store experience with online-type product reviews and information, some apps even allow users to virtually ‘try on’ garments, watch them demonstrated on a catwalk, and find out about stock availability, sizing and colours – all from their mobile phone.

Another approach: navigation and promotion

According to a study released last month (June), 71 per cent of retailers are using directions information and location-based advertising as part of their strategies to increase store traffic. To retailers, AR can maximise the advantages of the location-based services. Apart from making brands and products easy to find in large retail spaces, AR apps can also tempt shoppers with well-timed special offers and ads, thus boosting potential demand.

Lowe’s, a large home improvement retailer in the US, introduced an AR mapping app in some stores. The app detects customers’ locations and offers turn-by-turn guidance to the products of their choice.

An advanced version of this concept is an AR experience at the Vienna International Airport. Here, an AR app not only improved customer experience at the airport by providing turn-by-turn navigation, but actually increased airport concession sales by helping to connect passengers to the products and special offers they are interested in.

Much like a crowded mall or airport terminal, AR-powered turn-by-turn navigation could help delegates navigate their way through a busy tradeshow and ensure they find the product – or person – they’re looking for.

The future in-store experience: personalised and streamlined

Another approach to AR-retail fusion is that of the virtual ‘shopping assistant’, ready to enhance and streamline the entire retail experience – from the moment the customer steps through the door, through to the purchasing process.

Pioneering this approach is a collaboration between Mastercard, ODG and Qualcomm Technologies, which combines the cashless purchasing functions of Masterpass, the security of Identity Check Mobile and iris authentication, plus new AR functions, into a single app.

Currently in the prototype phase, the app offers users photorealistic AR views of products prior to purchasing, product information on demand – including other options not available at the user’s current location – and personalised product recommendations.

Again, the synergies between the shopping experience and the tradeshow experience are clear.

Retail’s new reality

It is early days yet for the integration of AR into physical retail, with different brands trying a wide variety of different approaches to realise its potential. What many brands seem to agree on is that AR holds the key to their competitiveness against e-commerce. The next few years will see a new shopping experience emerge. Can the same be said of trade exhibitions?

Caroline Bee is general manager of Pico+ Europe