Augmented reality in retail in a Covid-19 world

I was chatting with my family the other day (there’s a lot of time for that now!) about what it would have been like if we’d suffered the current pandemic in the late 80s or early 90s: so before the age of the internet and (shock horror to my teenagers!) before smartphones, Snap, Instagram, Netflix, Amazon and YouTube. As you can imagine there was stunned silence at the thought of relying on board games, craft and appointments to view programs, with ad breaks you couldn’t skip (Nooooo!). And what about non-essential shopping and retail? We’d be looking at QVC and Teletext. Silence.

The havoc that Covid-19 is wreaking across the total economy and within specific sectors is dramatic and unprecedented. The retail industry and high street in general as we know was already being battered by a nasty cocktail of rising rates, higher wage bills, dwindling footfall, the rise of online etc. Granted, retail as a sector has had a good amount of time to come to terms with digital disruption but hadn’t considered the daily disruption of a deadly disease and its effect on supply chains, stock and of course social distancing (a term I can’t remember ever using just a couple of months ago).

It would be easy to call time and lie down in the wake of so many impossible negative indicators and uncertain futures. But that would be to forget that in difficult times there’s always opportunity and a chance to reset the rules. That comes on two fronts: firstly, to breakdown the usual internal process, review and lead times to implement new technologies and systems that could accelerate growth and meet customer needs; secondly, to make the leap to optimise for an increasingly mobile-driven world when it comes to transactional value which will only be good for the business longer term anyway. With the majority of people confined to their homes and with their phones always within two metres of their grasp (the laws of phone distance is diametrically the opposite to the laws of social distancing), now like never before is a time to think mobile-first.

One potential facilitating technology to consider in this regard is augmented reality (AR). We know from neuroscience research that AR delivers twice the level of visual attention and a 75% uplift in memory recall versus other digital formats. We’ve also seen quantitatively how AR dramatically increases dwell time (75 seconds on average), click-through rates (3-5% typically) and registrations (30-50%). AR, it turns out, is a persuasive means of spatial storytelling, delivering active learning through doing and higher levels of engagement, interaction, sign up and sell-through.

Now in the latter half of 2019 and hurtling into 2020 we’ve seen the advent of mobile WebAR - meaning that AR experiences no longer require a native app or app download step at all. It can be distributed via the browser to the 3.5bn smartphones on the planet via a URL and reached through a QR code scan or deep-link in a social post or ad unit. Then there are the advances in photogrammetry, volumetric video capture, detail of 3D renderings with shaders and lighting, along with physics etc. meaning the ability to represent your products faithfully can now be achieved.

Brands and businesses are already taking note as in the case of Burberry and their Google Lens project bringing new AR ad formats to their shopping experience from shoes to satchels. It’s the ‘virtual try-before-you-buy’ method rendering items in 3D to give a more experiential sense of the product in your environment. The same technique has been successfully trialled on YouTube by MAC Cosmetics for make-up using face tracking and the application of lipstick and eye shadow etc. with incredible scores for dwell time and click-through rates. Ikea has been doing it for some time with world-tracked furniture placement massively increasing their conversion rates to sale on featured items. Once you’ve grasped the notion of product visualisation and its intrinsic value to the shopping experience, many opportunities open up. A note of caution here though: there are many products that still rely on their cut, fit and feel that can be visualised but not replicated. There’s a point where the A, M and V in AR, VR and MR can’t beat reality.

Beyond product visualisation there’s a world of exploration in personalisation and delivery of more contextually aware content with the merging of AR and chatbots and remote assistance overlays and virtual personal assistants. These discussions were usually the preserve of a siloed team with words like ‘digital transformation’ in their title with never-ending new product development proof of concepts (POCs) that might see the light of day in a couple of years or more likely die on the vine. Well, these are now being fast-tracked at an incredible speed as thought-leading brands and businesses are forced to find new ways to get their products in front of their consumers at home. It turns out social disruption breeds business disruption which forces us to change and adapt. You can either embrace it or put your head in the sand. So the question is, ‘What’s your camera strategy?’ How are you connecting with your consumers on the device that matters most to them in their lives in this new reality?

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