Augmented reality in retail: Virtual try before you buy

November 8, 2019
AR helps online shoppers understand what they’re buying—and how precisely items from home improvement goods to cosmetics will work for them.

Augmented reality (AR) isn’t a new concept. In fact, brands like Converse were experimenting with the immersive technology as far back as 2012, allowing sneaker aficionados to “try on” various shoes and see what they would look like on their feet.

But it wasn’t until about 2016 when AR got the much-needed push into the mainstream, when Niantic launched the AR-enhanced game Pokémon GO for iOS and Android devices. And when marketers saw how engaged and almost obsessed people became with the game (US daily users clocked in at 28.5 million at its peak), the opportunity to leverage AR for marketing became evident.

Fast forward to today, and there’s a slew of brands trying the format out for size. From Lowe’s to Wayfair, Benjamin Moore, and others, AR has turned into a medium for not only allowing people to contextually visualize what an item looks like but also to confirm fit and size. And while the home improvement industry is at the forefront of using AR for marketing, I see opportunities for many industries. Let’s walk through a few examples.

Footwear. While Converse made early strides in the footwear space with its Sample It app that let consumers visualize shoes on their feet, Nike has really taken this concept to a whole new level, ensuring the shoes a consumer chooses actually fit their feet.

“Nike Fit is a transformative solution and an industry first—using a digital technology to solve for massive customer friction.”

Nike Fit, a scanning app, uses a combination of computer vision, data science, machine learning, artificial intelligence and recommendation algorithms to measure the full shape of a user’s feet and know the perfect fit for each Nike shoe style.

The app collects data on 13 points on a person’s foot within a matter of seconds. This foot dimension can be stored in a user’s NikePlus account for future shopping both online and in store.

“Nike Fit is a transformative solution and an industry first—using a digital technology to solve for massive customer friction,” Nike writes in its press release for the launch of the app. “In the short term, Nike Fit will improve the way Nike designs, manufactures, and sells shoes—product better tailored to match consumer needs. A more accurate fit can contribute to everything from less shipping and fewer returns to better performance.”

Fashion. During CES in 2018, Gap unveiled its DressingRoom by Gap app, which was created to help customers try on clothing virtually. Shoppers can choose a Gap style they might be interested in purchasing and select one of five body types to visualize what an outfit will look like on them.

“The fashion industry has not traditionally been geared toward helping people understand how clothes will actually fit,” the company writes in its press release. “Gap is committed to winning customer trust by consistently presenting and delivering products that make customers look and feel great, and we are using technology to get there.”

Another great example of AR use in fashion happened during New York Fashion Week in 2018. Guests of Moschino and H&M’s fashion show were able to use an AR app to scan outfits on the runway and purchase them on the spot.

Accessories. Jewelry, long showcased behind glass, is another area seeing the benefits of AR. Online jewelry retailer Kollectin is one of the brands leading the charge here. The retailer’s app launched an AR feature earlier this year called “Xperience Mode” to let customers virtually try on jewelry.

Eyeglass maker Warby Parker is also playing in the AR space, allowing people to see what a pair of glasses looks like on their faces before making a purchase.

The app, launched in February this year, is unique in that it doesn’t just have users take a photo of themselves to overlay glasses onto. The glasses are rendered in a live 3D preview of a person’s face, meaning users can turn their heads to see what a pair of glasses looks like from various angles.

Cosmetics. YouTube-watching makeup junkies can now experiment with AR cosmetics while watching their favorite makeup tutorials. The interactive ad format works as follows: You’re watching your favorite makeup blogger apply a foundation. All of a sudden, a virtual try-on option appears on the screen and you can see how you look in the same exact product. MAC Cosmetics was among the first brands to try the new format.

AR is also proving to be useful in the physical retail environment, as a more sanitary option for trying out makeup. Retailer Sephora is among the early adopters, both with its mobile app as well as its in-store standalone mirror that allows users to see how various products look on their faces.

Furniture and home décor. DecorMatters is redefining the interior design and furniture shopping experience. Users can completely transform the rooms in their homes, from the paint on the walls all the way through to furniture and fixtures of their choice. It’s completely changing the way people shop for and buy furniture and home décor.

The difference between DecorMatters and other similar apps is that it allows users to visualize furniture from Amazon, Wayfair, Crate & Barrel, West Elm, IKEA, Ashley, Target, Lamps Plus, Living Spaces and more. And the app’s AR ruler functionality helps users measure the size of their room, giving a more accurate rendering in terms of how various pieces will look and fit into their spaces.

AR’s bright future

As the technology evolves and gives users more and more accurate renderings of how digital objects look in physical spaces, I expect that more and more brands and industries will hop onto the AR marketing bandwagon. From fashion and accessories to footwear and home décor, and beyond, AR has the potential to transform and completely reimagine customer experiences. These innovations will help companies better connect with consumers and will empower shoppers to make more informed and accurate purchase decisions, ultimately reducing purchase anxiety.

What is perhaps even more exciting for brands and online retailers beyond the conversion opportunity is its ability to curtail the biggest cost downside of e-commerce—returns. The promise of AR is that it provides a technological way for consumers to accurately and confidently confirm size and fit, be that the size of a new pair of sneakers, or confirming that a couch will fit in the living room. Lower return rates, especially for heavy or bulky items and custom-made products that cannot be easily resold, will be a panacea for increasing margins and profitability online.

This article was written by Peter Sheldon and was originally published on TechnologyReview.com on October 23, 2019.