Comment: Mel Taylor of Omnico on the in-store future of VR and AR

The notion of what happens in a store changing room may be about to change.

Whereas eager shoppers currently have to go through the time-consuming chore of putting on a pair of trousers they like, looking in the mirror and then taking them off, only to try on two different sizes or colours, in the future the clothes could be displayed digitally on the mirror. 

Advances in augmented reality (AR) technology enable digital images, accurate in every detail including size and colour, to be overlaid on to the mirror’s image of the customer as they move about in front of the device.

These ‘magic mirrors’ are among innovations that consumers around the globe increasingly expect to see in a store, whatever the location. It is already three years since Topshop in the UK created its ground-breaking virtual dressing room and now we have Google deploying its Tango AR technology in big name stores such as Gap.

Research reveals demand

Research exploring attitudes to retail technology among 3,470 consumers in the UK, US, China, Japan and Malaysia this year found a real appetite for this kind of innovation, alongside some significant variations in expectations between countries.

More than half of the consumers in the vast Chinese market (54 per cent), for example, say they want VR in stores so they can visualise how they look in clothing. Chinese shoppers are considerably more excited by the potential of VR and AR than their counterparts in the other countries surveyed. More than a third of them (36 per cent) want to use AR to bring products to life on their smartphones. Across all five nations, 29 per cent of respondents want VR. The Chinese are also most captivated by magic mirrors, with 36 per cent wanting them as part of the store furniture.

This enthusiasm in China makes the trial of VR by e-commerce giant Alibaba seem prescient. Last year Alibaba started giving customers virtual tours of seven high-profile stores, including Costco and Macy’s, enabling them to move through them, view products and hit the buy-button simply with a head movement. It proved popular, with millions of people experiencing the tours via cardboard headsets with their smartphones.

Augmenting choice

Consumers are attracted to VR and AR because of the choice it gives with a minimum of hassle. If for example, they are in a fashion or clothing store, all the alternatives can be “tried on” without having to take them into the changing room. Even sizes or colours not in that store on that day can still be “worn.”

The same goes for any product where choice and options are many and varied. Customers of Jura Watches in the UK, for example, can use AR at home to see how timepieces look on their wrists. They simply download and cut out a paper marker, put it on their wrist and their webcam along with the retailer’s software takes care of the rest. 

New Balance, the retailer of “athletic shoes”,  wants to use VR for the broader purpose of engaging younger customers, rather than focusing on individual products. In selected stores it gives customers the chance to tour a factory so they can view trainers being made.

VR and AR are not the only technologies that promise retail transformation. The research found that more than a quarter of consumers (26 per cent) internationally want to see greater availability of tablet devices for browsing products in-store, whilst a quarter believe stock robots are what will make a beneficial difference in the future.

Making it all work

However, without advanced stock monitoring software in the background, the advances that consumers want in retail are unlikely to become more than novelties. To meet expectations, retailers must be able to supply whatever a customer finally chooses, no matter if it is in another store, being transported or still in a distribution hub. There is little point in allowing consumers to use VR and AR to try on products in store if it is unclear how long they will take to arrive.

The technology may change, but the basics of staying ahead of the competition in retail remain much the same wherever you are. It is about exceeding customer expectations.

Mel Taylor is CEO of Omnico Group