Augmented Reality in Retail: Moving From a Novelty to the Norm

by Dave Hanson

During Retail Prophet Doug Stephens’ opening keynote at the 2019 Category Management and Shopper Insights Conference, he spent a good bit of time talking about the monolithic force that is Amazon.com. In one particularly interesting portion of his talk, he focused-in on threats to the retail giant’s dominance over the next decade and pointed to evolving augmented reality technologies like Magic Leap as one potential stumbling block for them.

While Amazon has been experimenting with their own augmented reality tech for well over a year now with their AR View technology, the execution thus far has been more of a sideshow than a main event. When you consider the potential of AR in a retail setting, it is plain to see that much of that potential is still untapped. The ability to see a coffee table (for example) in your living room and buy it with a simple gesture is an open window for bold innovators to step in and revolutionize retail with a better, more intuitive, more fun way to shop. There are a lot of ways to do it, and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

Companies like IKEA and Wayfair have been early adopters on the retail side, but let’s face it – while holding up our phones or tablets to envision the placement of our new couch has some utility, it isn’t exactly a revolutionary tidal wave that reinvents the way we shop. That being said, change is undoubtedly on the horizon.

Just last week, rumors emerged from reliable sources about Apple launching augmented reality glasses as an iPhone accessory in 2020, with production beginning late this year. If we’re using history as a guide, the launch of just about any piece of tech from the folks in Cupertino, CA represents the equivalent of “going mainstream”.

While Apple usually isn’t the first to market, they design their tech to be easy-to-use and have enough loyal customers to steer powerful market forces behind their technology. Their emergence into the wearable AR tech market could feasibly lead to the evolution and consumer revival of once-promising technologies like Microsoft HoloLens and Google Glass as well, which have lived mostly in an enterprise setting thus far. And of course, more new competitors always follow. So, while some retailers may still see AR as a bit of a novelty, the clock is truly ticking until newer, better technologies help it become the norm.

One of the key differences here will likely be the greater perceived sense of reality offered by the gear as AR technology advances and begins to blur the line with virtual reality. By looking and performing better, it creates an aspect to the user experience that goes beyond utility or novelty. It creates joy.

Thinking back on Doug Stephens’ keynote, he described the Amazon shopping experience as efficient and effective, but ultimately joyless, in many ways. In a 2018 Op-Ed in Business of Fashion, Stephens opined, “The problem is that we, as human beings, don’t merely shop to acquire products. Not all the time anyway. We also shop to discover new things, to socialize with friends and to entertain ourselves. We shop for the thrill of the hunt and the associated dopamine rush to our brains when we find it. Amazon seemingly has no interest in these less transactional elements. Shopping on Amazon remains a solitary, static and sullen activity: a Sears catalogue on digital steroids.”

Perhaps these recent developments by Apple are yet another step toward consumers rediscovering the “fun” in their shopping experience. Envision a future where you can pair up with friends online and share your view from your AR device to solicit their opinion on your new outfit or coffee table. Or perhaps you’ll be gathering opinions on paint choices or cocktail dresses while you live stream from your AR glasses on your Instagram story.

These are just a few examples, but it’s not hard to see how buying a new pair of jeans can transform from today’s solitary experience on Amazon to a more social and satisfying activity through the power of augmented reality.

For retailers, the challenge now comes back to user experience. How can they leverage this new technology to bring joy to their shoppers? How can they turn the less transactional elements of the sale into experiences people love? Because ultimately, augmented reality is about creating an experience. And helping customers rediscover the joy of shopping just might be what swings the pendulum in a new direction in this new era of retail.