Chances are that you’re one of the 100+ million users who have downloaded and experimented with Pokémon Go. But even if you haven’t thrown a Poké Ball into a stranger’s yard to catch a Charmender, you’ve no doubt witnessed friends, family members or coworkers heads-down in their smartphones, engrossed in Niantic’s popular augmented reality (AR) game.
If so, you’ve caught a glimpse of the future of commerce. By the end of 2017, Gartner predicts (client subscription required), one in five leading global retail brands will use AR to enhance the shopping process — by layering digital information — text, images, video and audio — on top of the physical world.
That doesn’t mean you’ll need to put on a dorky-looking headset every time you walk into your local Target. Head-mounted displays (HMDs) like Oculus Rift, which my colleague Augie Ray trialed in a previous post, are more the province of virtual reality (VR). VR likewise falls into the immersive technology category, but it’s different than AR in that it allows users to engage with a range of rich, projected experiences. If you’re a Star Trek fan, think of the holodeck. It represents a 24th-century vision of VR. Augmented reality, by contrast, is grounded in and designed to enhance your experience of the real world; that’s what separates it from virtual reality.
A big driver behind Pokémon Go’s popularity is the fact that it doesn’t require any special equipment — just the smartphone most mobile users already own and carry with them at all times. As we know from our own daily experience, omnipresent mobile device usage is already an ingrained behavior, one that has been blurring the lines between the physical and digital worlds for some time.
It’s up to brands and their retail partners to develop mechanisms that will leverage this behavior to enhance the shopping experience. When it comes to AR, this means engaging customers in a fashion that draws on what is unique to the AR experience, not duplicating what customers can get in better, faster or more convenient ways via another medium. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Ana Javornik, lecturer at Newcastle University Business School, notes, “The crucial part of the AR experience is whether the technology adds real value. Simply overlaying something virtual on a phone screen doesn’t always cut it and can appear gimmicky.” In other words, don’t augment reality for the sake of augmenting reality. Rather, as Javornik found through a series of lab studies, when AR is integrated into the shopping experience, the outcomes are favorable, driving purchase activity and positively affecting the customer experience.
That may explain why AR apps that allow customers to “try” products are emerging as a leading use case for retailers. For example, a consumer pointing the IKEA catalog app at a room in her home can “place” furniture where she’d like it to go (video demo here). The Swedish furniture brand is something of a pioneer in this regard, having been at augmented reality shopping since 2013. For large, high-consideration purchases like furniture, the ability to visualize the potential fit is a powerful decisioning tool.
Other retailers, from cosmetic brands like L’Oréal to apparel companies such as Converse, Lacoste and American Apparel to eyewear brands like 1-800 CONTACTS, have also keyed in on the possibilities around try-on AR experiences. L’Oréal’s MakeupGenius app allows consumers to test products and even share how they look across their social graph, a feature that augments an already-ingrained behavior. Shoppers have been using social media platforms to ask friends and family for advice for some time, after all. L’Oréal takes that engagement a step further by enabling consumers to easily purchase the products they’ve tried on within the app, helping to shrink the distance between desire and action.
It would be great if retailers could inspire shoppers to race around their stores on a daily basis, using their phones to chase and buy actual items on the shelves, but that’s not a very realistic scenario because most people don’t shop as obsessively as they play popular games. The key to successful immersive shopping experiences is leveraging existing behaviors, providing some tangible benefits through enhanced information and enabling a better customer experience that will keep shoppers coming back. That’s a long game. Bonus points if you can make shopping more fun in the process.