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Opinion: virtual reality could offer much more to shoppers and retailers says David Lowrence of Fujitsu

It can be argued that much of the retail industry has been relatively slow in adopting customer-facing technologies in its stores. While many retailers utilise price terminals and self-service touchscreen points of service in their brick-and-mortar stores, customers still need to go to the till or ask a shop assistant to find out stock availability, size variations or other information about chosen items. But there is one technology that has the potential to change this and deliver a wealth of valuable information to the customers’ smartphones and tablets whenever and wherever they need it – augmented reality (AR).

Augmented reality integrates virtual information with real-world objects, to show additional detail about products or places. It’s quite a futuristic technology and, as such, it comes as no surprise that there is a healthy dose of scepticism around it - especially as a lot of people identify AR technology in retail with some sort of virtual fitting room, which will allow customers to try on different clothes without actually having to change. While the technological capability to deliver on this idea already exists, there are plenty of more immediate uses of augmented reality that can bring real benefits to both retailers and customers.

The first of many benefits of AR lies in its ability to enable customers to make better informed decisions at the point of selection or the point of sale. A customer may be looking for a new piece of kitchen equipment, for example, but not be sure which to choose as features are not always clear on packaging. By pointing a smartphone or another mobile device at the selected items and using AR technology he or she can learn more about how it works, what its capabilities are, and what it would look like in a kitchen.

An AR mobile app could display stories about the manufacturer, the various uses to which the product can be put, additional features and add-ons and matching products. By making inanimate products animate, AR ensures that the whole buying process is much more immediate and interactive while offering the best customer service to the shopper.

Another interesting use of AR comes with its possible integration with the cloud. By enabling customers to input their personal shopping preferences, for example around food allergies, retailers can speed up the shopping process.

AR technology can of course be extrapolated into areas of retail other than the shop floor. There are already some shopping catalogues which allow customers to see virtual realities – on certain pages one can point a smartphone at the kitchen equipment catalogue page and see what is inside a drawer or how something is fixed to the wall.

These examples show that the potential of AR technology in retail is both real and immediate – it could mean better informed and more empowered customers and more customer-friendly and relevant retailers.


David Lowrence is a retail industry consultant for Fujitsu UK & Ireland