Can Augmented Reality Save Brick & Mortar Retail?

Alan Smithson Industry Updates, The Blog, Thought Leadership

Augmented Reality (AR) technology is on a faster evolutionary curve than e-commerce, and while futuristic head mounted displays like the Microsoft Hololens have captured the imagination of the tech world, Apple’s announcement that iPhones now supporting advanced AR functions has boosted mainstream awareness and demand for AR on our most familiar mobile devices. With the release of ARKit for iOS and ARCore for Android, it is estimated by the end of 2017, over 1.4 Billion devices will instantly be transformed into powerful AR capable devices transforming the way we see the world around us.

Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR) have been rapidly evolving into some of the most powerful platforms to create immersive and emotionally engaging experiences and are already revolutionizing the way brands engage with customers.

With the rise of e-commerce, traditional retail environments must evolve into spaces that provide unique experiences imprinting a lasting impact on customers and connecting them emotionally to brands. Augmented Reality will move marketing experiences beyond fixed screens to transform retail environments into interactive playgrounds that engage customers’ imaginations and emotions.

While games like Pokemon GO have leapt to the top of the download charts, the most innovative and useful applications of AR have been focused on business and particularly retail. An already popular example, IKEA Place allows users to place photo-realistic furniture in their living rooms to test out new home design options. As further proof of the fun-factor of AR, users are sharing social media images of IKEA couches furnishing subway platforms.

Three weeks ago, Canada’s largest pharmacy chain Shoppers Drug Mart unveiled a unique, web-based AR activation at Sherway Gardens Mall. A charmingly recreated bedroom contains a selection of cosmetics, snacks and other products from the retailer’s “Top Picks” selection, each accompanied by a trigger that launches an interactive 3D model of the product on the user’s mobile screen along with useful information and offers. Unlike Toys ‘R’ Us and IKEA’s experiences, this Augmented Reality activation requires no app download, running directly from the user’s mobile browser.

Check out the Web3D Product Player here (mobile only):

Developed by Toronto VR/AR company MetaVRse, the WebAR/Web3D platform removes one of the primary barriers that prevent shoppers from using AR – the need to download yet another app onto their device. In these early days of AR, while users are still getting accustomed to seeing their world enhanced through a mobile screen, this more casual, web-based approach to the technology may become the more popular option for retailers hoping to engage more of their customers.

“This more casual, web-based approach to the technology may become the more popular option for retailers hoping to engage more of their customers.” – Alan Smithson

A few weeks after iconic children’s retailer Toys ‘R’ Us announced it was filing for bankruptcy protection in the United States and Canada, the company made news again, this time in the technology section. With the launch of a new Augmented Reality app called Play Chaser, Toys R Us shoppers can interact with the many products in the toy store’s aisles through interactive games on their mobile screens, engaging with giraffe mascot Geoffrey and earning points in competitive leaderboards. The company is hoping that the app will give young shoppers a new reason to visit and extend the time they spend browsing the aisles of their stores over major competitors like Walmart and Amazon.

These headlines highlight two sides of a story that has been developing throughout the world of retail for the last few years. The evolution of e-commerce continues to make it easier for shoppers across all categories to browse, research and order products from their mobile devices, even in categories like clothing and groceries where shoppers have traditionally preferred an in-store experience.

According to news sources, the outlook for traditional brick and mortar retail is bleak. With over 120 malls and over 6000 retail stores expected to close in 2017, it is vital that retailers begin to shift to more innovative ways to keep shoppers excited about the in-store experience. When brick and mortar stores can no longer differentiate from their online competitors on price, selection or convenience, they are increasingly turning to technology to create unique experiences that help consumers recapture the joy of shopping.

“Early adopters of immersive technologies will dominate the industry similar to those who embraced the internet” – Alan Smithson

Early adopters and developers are already sporting early-model AR headsets, but we are still a few years and few technological breakthroughs away from the shift from smartphones to smart glasses as our primary digital interfaces.

Brands that begin experimenting with immersive technologies now will have a head start over existing competition and pressure from innovative retail startups. Creating applications that transform our surroundings and strong business use cases will directly impact the very survival of traditional retail. These early examples of augmented reality are clearly projecting the future onto our mobile screens.

So the question of whether augmented reality can save brick and mortar retail remains to be seen. What we do know is brands that start working with this technology now, stand a much better chance of being prepared for a future where everything moves from 2D phone based to 3D headset based over the next 5 years.

WebAR & Web3D – Until now, Augmented Reality experiences required the download of a dedicated app to enjoy the experience. Consumers are hesitant to download single purpose apps and WebAR removed this barrier to entry giving Android and iOS11 enabled phones the ability to trigger AR animations directly from a mobile website. Try the WebAR and Web3D Player here: