Augmented Retail – Will it bring the store to your door?

With the recent unveiling of Apple's Vision Pro at WWDC, AR technology is back on top as the tech du jour.

With the recent unveiling of Apple's Vision Pro at WWDC, AR technology is back on top as the tech du jour. Apple has a knack for ergonomics and lifestyle - AR fans were bullish on the idea of an Apple headset back in 2021. But the question remains: are customers ready for AR? And what does it mean for retail? 

AR in retail isn’t new. 

How many times have you read "the high street is dying" in the last two decades? Retail is undergoing a technology revival to survive, and AR has proven itself as a strong contender for your attention.  
Over half of shoppers, as Google highlighted in Forbes, have developed a fondness for brands that use AR to add a touch of magic to their shopping experience - it's not exactly brand new.  
Take Ikea for instance, an early bird in the AR scene. They've turned catalogue browsing into an interactive experience, allowing you to see how that Billy bookcase or Ektorp sofa fits right into your living room. Imagine trying on glasses or lipstick without stepping into a store, something brands like Warby Parker and Sephora are making possible.  
AR is even breathing life into product packaging. Ideus's proprietary AR tech shows off its electronics in 3D before you pop open the box. From Zara's AR window displays to Nike's immersive customer experiences, the fashion sector is fast becoming a playground for augmented customer experiences. It seems like the high street isn't dying—it's evolving. 

Change takes time 

It's easy to be bullish on AR in retail, but as Lucas Matney noted for Tech Crunch way back in 2021 - "Augmented reality’s awkward phase will be long and painful." Reading that piece back, you might think Lucas is the modern-day Oracle of Delphi. 
Two years down the line, his observations on everyday users not seeming "quite as interested in AR as the next generation of platform owners need them to be" still ring true. The Oculus Rift had its time in the spotlight, as did the MetaQuest. Google Glass came and went in a trail of user privacy scandal - nice idea, wrong timing and execution. IKEA's virtual room decor tool is still gimmicky and slow. Pokemon Go saw a boom during the height of lockdown, but interest has dropped off.  
Whether in the gaming, working, or retail spaces - there simply has not been that "transformative" behavioural shift away from flat screens and keyboards. The majority of eCommerce shopping is conducted on mobile devices, typically in browser or via an app. And in-person experiences are, one could argue, far more compelling after years of disrupted social connection.  

Data: Inconclusive 

Google "what do customers want from AR" and you'll find PDF after whitepaper after report touting the public's readiness for AR and its use in retail. Promising, right? 
Here's a trick to help you weigh up the evidence. I bet you there's a direct correlation between high positivity stats on this topic, and the likelihood that the publisher is an AR or retail tech provider. Sample bias is real.  
Academic research tells a different story. In a 2021 study by Indira Amaris, customers perceptions and attitudes on AR in online retail were observed in a controlled environment. 
Participants revealed that while AR in retail has vast potential, this value is largely unrealised. They appreciated AR's ability to provide insights about product dimensions and textures, and to streamline the decision-making process. However, they didn't view it as a time-saver, instead suggesting it could lead to more considered and prolonged decision-making. 
In fact, Amaris writes, “All of the participants believe there is a lot of poential for AR in retail settings. However, the majority of them think the tool does not provide significant value yet.” 

Ethical AR – an oxymoron? 

Outside of Apple's shiny WWDC demo area, the reality of inviting an all-seeing, all-tracking headset into your home raises concerns for many. AR in retail doesn't come without ethical considerations.  
We can't overlook the risk of information leakage - AR apps typically require user's personal information, and vulnerabilities can grant unauthorised parties access to sensitive data. This is particularly relevant as 3rd party supply chain cyber attacks rise: AR tech is largely outsourced at this point in time.  
Beyond data concerns, there is the argument that AR will shift our perception of reality. At this point, we don't know how long-term AR usage affects humans - could it cause addiction? Distruption? Personality changes? Difficulty understand what is "real" and what is not?  


AR up for adoption


Even with tech advances, over half of online retailers confess they're not quite ready to handle the leap into AR. It's not just about creating a unique shopping experience - it needs to be scalable, which is easier said than done. 
Developing an engaging AR tool or app requires understanding what shoppers truly want from you. What problem does it solve? Personalisation and interactive content are typical end-user needs, but translating them into AR can be tricky.  
You can expect to come up against hurdles with localisation, offering incentives to build user volume, and increasing discoverability. Not to mention your AR tool needs to be ergonomic, secure, and - after all this - add value to the shopping experience.  
There are benefits to early adoption, however. AR can enhance engagement, and even boost sales. Plus, with the right use case, you could be seen as an innovator, driving loyalty and offering good PR. 

Jobs of the future 

So, it seems the move towards AR in retail is inevitable, if slower than anticipated. But what will the job market look like when Retail AR picks up speed?  
You'll need to be thinking about AR developers - proficient in AR development platforms like Unity, ARCore, and ARKit, with a keen understanding of UX and UI design. 3D artists will also be in high demand. Breathing life into the augmented world of AR; look for artists with mastery of 3D modelling platforms like Blender or Sketchup.  
AR is a touchpoint ripe for data acquisition. You'll need machine learning experts and data scientists capable of analysing user data, making sense of shopping habits and trends, and leveraging this information to create truly personalised AR shopping experiences. And don't skimp on the marketing, either - make sure you're differentiated and discoverable.  

What’s next for AR in retail? 

Even as we navigate this "wait and see" phase, the demand for AR in retail is on the rise. Brands are recognising the value it can add to the customer experience, even if it's not yet the default way to shop.  
But for AR to recognise its potential in retail, a new league of technologists is required. We will need developers, artists, data scientists, and marketers, each bringing a unique skill set to the table. It's these trailblazers who will turn the potential of AR into a reality, and in doing so, they'll not only transform our shopping experiences but also the face of retail itself. 
Staffing an exciting retail technology project? I can help. Connect with Emily Cumming here on LinkedIn, or call me on 01789 269677.  


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