The mainstreaming of virtual reality, along with its cousins augmented reality and mixed reality, presents innumerable opportunities for commerce. The technology has the capability to transport us into a virtual, fantastic world where anything is possible. Or it can bring the fantastical into our world, adding valuable information or amazing imagery our real-life surroundings. Naturally, one of the areas where reality technologies can make the biggest impact is in shopping and retail.
Virtual reality, more than just providing an unforgettable experience to draw shoppers into stores, has the capability to make the way we shop truly easier and better. Imagine trying on clothes without stepping foot in a store, or taking a car for a test drive without visiting the dealership. Imagine the ways it can make the shopping experience more efficient, less prone to buyer’s remorse and, of course, more fun.
Augmented reality has found a place in shopping, as well as full-fledged virtual experiences. Retailers large and small are deploying their own AR apps to be used in the home, in the store, or both. The largest and most cutting-edge vendors are utilizing the technology to provide an amazing, novel, and beautiful shopping experience to their customers. Here are some of the best ways the technology is being used today.
One of the most dramatic uses of virtual reality in shopping can be found at home improvement chain Lowe’s. At a select but growing number of participating stores, homeowners can utilize an Oculus Rift head-mounted display to virtually explore their dream kitchen or bath.
Billed as a “digital power tool”, the Lowe’s Holoroom is a full-featured solution that takes customers from designing their room using an online tool, to exploring it in the virtual world from a Lowe’s location, and even publishing it as a 360 YouTube video.
The application is a wonderful example of the ways that virtual reality can make shopping easier, above and beyond the novelty inherent to the technology. CAD drawings can only go so far to provide a sense of place when designing a room. The ability to virtually enter the drawings, at scale and with total freedom of movement, is a new and exciting way to create the perfect home.
The Holoroom is one of the first examples of a social VR app. Leveraging the popularity and accessibility of YouTube 360° videos, Lowe’s essentially has the best of both worlds. They can wow their paying customers with an unforgettable trip into the virtual world, while still leveraging the power of social sharing to let those same customers bring their friends to the table.
A very early application of augmented reality in shopping still stands as one of the most effective. Cosmetics maker Shiseido, which sells its products at department and beauty stores like Macy’s and Sephora, tackled the age-old problem of choosing the right makeup in a unique way.
Constructing “digital makeup simulators”, essentially large touchscreens shaped like cosmetics mirrors and installed in retail stores, Shiseido has been able to provide virtual beauty consultations to hundreds of thousands of clients since 2011. The simulator automatically takes a still photo of the user’s face as they sit down, using an advanced face detection algorithm. The software then digitally applies makeup to the photo, makes recommendations, and allows the user to experiment with the full range of Shiseido products without ever cracking open a jar.
What Shiseido has managed to do is successfully replace the age-old institution of the mall beauty consultant with automated software. By doing so, they standardize their brand messaging, provide an even level of quality across all their retail locations, and allow shoppers to create their own look in a fun, DIY, tech-assisted environment.
By couching the augmented reality in an installation taking the form of something very familiar, the makeup mirror, Shiseido lowered the bar to entry for shoppers of every kind, no matter how tech-averse. The digital makeup simulators were a huge success, and they are emulated by other brands to this day.
On the opposite end of the augmented reality shopping spectrum is the very dramatic, even stunning way Asian grocery retailer Yihaodian employs the technology.
As an online shopping site in the traditionally brick-and-mortar grocery space, Yihaodian has engaged in a constant battle for brand awareness and market share. In 2012, the firm leveraged augmented reality to bring that battle into the real world in a fresh, imaginative way.
In October 2012, the firm announced they had opened 1,000 stores in the blink of an eye. The stores are tagged to physical locations such as landmarks and, brilliantly, in front of competitor supermarkets. However, they exist only in the virtual world, and can only be accessed through the Yihaodian mobile app.
To visit one of the stores, users physically travel to its location, pull up the app on a mobile device, and look around through its screen. As if by magic, store shelves appear, stocked with products, deals, and exclusive discounts. Users physically walk the aisles just as they would in a brick-and-mortar store, and tap items on screen to order them. Items are then delivered to their homes or businesses through the users’ existing Yihaodian accounts.
Although something could be said about the inherent absurdity of forcing shoppers to visit a physical location to buy products online, the virtual stores are fun and highly effective. They are still in operation to this day, and in fact attracted the attention of Wal-Mart, which purchased the company last year. The US retail giant’s acquisition could mean the technology will spread beyond China in the near future.
Augmented reality shopping apps for smartphones and tablets are a no-brainer for many retailers, and they are becoming more and more common. For younger brands like American Apparel, they are practically a requirement, and their clients would be more surprised if the store did not offer such an app.
American Apparel’s iteration on the technology has the honor of being one of the first, as well as one of the most full-featured. Walking through the clothing retailer, shoppers can pull out their smartphones and scan images and barcodes to view color and size options and product variants. The app also offers access to video tutorials and still images showcasing ways to wear, and of course plenty of social sharing options.
By leveraging location services, the app gives shoppers a reason to visit the store and see what’s new. In the world of mall retailers, feet in the door translate directly to increased sales, and so the shopping app detects when a user is nearing a store and sends deals and bargains directly to the device.
Today’s shoppers are tied very closely to their devices, and so an app such as American Apparel’s is a key tool in making sales. By embracing the presence of technology through augmented reality features, rather than trying to push them away through such old-fashioned tools as paper catalogs and mailers, the retailer has kept their place near the top of the mall food chain.