3 Ways AR and VR can help brands and retailers adapt to the New Normal

Linda Bustos

Prior to COVID-19, analysts were bullish on AR and VR for retail and B2B commerce. Deloitte predicted 100M consumers would use AR to shop online or in-store in 2020, while Gartner claimed 46% of retailers were planning to deploy AR or VR in turn. IDC forecast retailers and manufacturers would drop $1.5B and $1.4B respectively on AR/VR experiences.

Consumers are quite receptive to AR and VR shopping (at least the surveys say) -- perferred to voice and social shopping by a landslide. Retail Perceptions found:

  • 1 in 3 shoppers already uses AR
  • 71% of consumers would shop at a store more often if they offer AR
  • 47% would prefer to use AR both in store and online
  • 40% would be willing to pay more to brands that offer AR

Is AR/VR still viable in 2020?

Despite the apparent demand from business and consumers, COVID-19 has undoubtedly thrown a monkey wrench into AR and VR investment. Even in pre-pandemic conditions, 64% of executives said lack of budget was a roadblock to adopting the technology, with lack of internal resources (55% and executive buy-in (42%) also factors.

In our current climate, “fail fast” experimental projects are a luxury many brands and retailers can’t afford.

Any investment in AR or VR in 2020-2022 requires a rock-solid business case and anticipated ROI in a time when even conventional commerce projects are put on hold or canceled.

For AR/VR projects that are greenlit, fast time-to-market and efficient use of resources is key.

The good news for brands and retailers is AR and VR no longer need greenfield investment in bespoke agency development or fancy hardware. Both iOS’ ARKit and Android’s ARCore support AR capabilities that can be baked into native and progressive web apps, and WebAR / WebVR supports cross-device experiences.

To evaluate whether investment is worth the risk, let’s explore the ways AR and VR can mitigate some of the pain brought on by the pandemic, and the available solutions.

3 ways AR/VR can help brands and merchants thrive post-coronavirus

Replace the photoshoot

New social distancing protocols, restricted travel and leaner budgets are all disrupting the traditional photoshoot.

No worries for brands and retailers, there are at least two AI and AR solutions (Zeekit and VueModel) that can close this gap. ASOS and Milaner are just two retailers using the technology, and the results are pretty mad decent.

Can you tell this is a virtual photo shoot? Image credit: The Drum

With Vue.ai’s VueModel, for example, you can use your own models or choose from Vue.ai’s roster. The tech allows you to superimpose garments on your model, choose different poses and backgrounds, and customize ethnicities and body types.

You can also upload flat product photos and VueModel’s AI will predict the size and fit and choose a model for you. The company claims its tool can shave ¾ off the cost of traditional photo shoots.

Considering live photoshoots have long been manipulated by angles, lighting, garment pinning and Photoshop, AR combined with predictive AI can offer customers a more realistic vision of a garment to boot.

The advantages of AR photoshoots go beyond staying safe during COVID-19:

💡The ability to offer model diversity and allow customers to filter by model attributes is a value-add for any merchant, giving customers an enhanced way to personalize their experience. #inclusivity

💡Images go beyond just product photos, complete looks can be styled for product pages, banner images, social content, ads, lookbooks and “shop the look” content quickly, affordably and at scale.

💡Virtual styling at scale enables greater merchandising personalization. Fashion preferences in LA, the Midwest, New York and Miami can be wildly different, for example, as can preferences by age. The ability to serve different banners to different customers based on browser and profile data can tailor relevant experiences.

💡Got a product with a low click through or sell-through rate? The problem could be the model, from their pose, to their facial expression or other variable. The ability to instantly re-shoot or even A/B test models can have a serious impact on sell-through.

Enhance try-before-you-buy

Virtual try-on is hardly a new feature. We covered one of the earliest adopters EyeBuyDirect’s Wall of Frame back in 2008.

Today there are few eyewear brands and retailers that don’t offer a similar tool. And virtual try-on has infiltrated everything from cosmetics to apparel, home furnishings to footwear -- evolving to include 360° images, 3D mesh models and interactivity for more realistic visualization.

For example, Quytech offers merchants a tool that enables customers to 3D scan their feet, body or face to virtually try on products. Competitor Vyking.io allows customers to move, even walk around in their augmented kicks.

Virtual try-on was once an online-only experience (or delivered through expensive “magic mirrors” or Oculus experiences in-store). But today’s need for low-touch, hands-off and hygienic physical retail has increased demand for self-serve AR/VR through personal mobile devices.

Today, many shoppers carry compatible (late model) devices that now support AR and VR, and can access these features through native or progressive web apps. But the challenge remains that many retailers are serving experiences that are device and even browser specific -- even through PWAs.

For example, Kendra Scott's jewelry try-on is built with Apple’s ARKit. Though served through a PWA, the feature only works in the US for newer iPhone models through the Safari browser.

Kendra Scott allows iPhone/Safari users to virtually try on earrings

Are buyers ready for virtual try-on?

💡With online returns amounting to $350-$550B per year, virtual try-on pays for itself if it can increase conversion while reducing returns for “sight unseen” purchases.

💡However, it’s better to use no AR than poor AR. Virtual try-on can actually increase returns if it’s misleading or misrepresents fit or form.

💡Today, ARKit only works with late-model iPhones (7 and higher), and Android’s ARCore has similar constraints. We’re still an upgrade cycle away from critical mass adoption of AR and VR-compatible mobile devices, meaning it could be another 2 years before experiences become universally accessible.

Support social distancing in high-touch sales

Virtual experiences also have impact on B2B, including industrial manufacturing. Supporting remote demonstrations, trials and training for specialized equipment replaces the on-site sales or technician visit, reducing costs and increasing efficiency.

PTC’s Vuforia Chalk is an augmented reality that enables on-site and offsite employees and brand reps to collaborate on demos, training, operations and repair. They like the tool to “Facetime with augmented reality superpowers." (To help brands and manufacturers through the COVID-19 crisis, PTC is offering Chalk free).

For example, Howden uses mixed reality (both AR and VR) to create step-by-step instructions from existing 3D machine models.

Mixed reality can support B2B equipment training and maintenance. Image credit: PTC

Virtual experiences can also be translated to website content. B2B brands and manufacturers who both sell on and compete with Amazon are often hamstrung by the requirement to offer content parity across channels (in other words, Amazon won't let you have better content on your own site than the marketplace).

The ability to add AR/VR content such as demos and tutorials on the branded website provides a value add for new and existing customers that Amazon (and many competitors) can’t match.

These are just 3 ways you can use AR and VR to enhance digital in the “new normal” of social distancing, increased hygiene concerns and digital pre-shopping.

Next post, we’ll dig even deeper on how to use AR and VR with headless commerce. Are you subscribed?

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Linda Bustos

Linda is an ecommerce industry analyst and consultant specializing in conversion optimization and digital transformation.