AR’s role in creating compelling customer experiences

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Stop if you’ve heard this: 2019 will be the year that augmented reality really takes off. No, keep reading. Despite headlines going back at least a decade, it seems AR might finally have arrived.

In some ways, it’s already here. Pokémon Go took the country by storm in 2016, helping consumers become more familiar with AR without really announcing it. Snapchat pushed the concept even further with its funny lenses and other AR experiences.

AR is already well entrenched in some ways — its use in retail is nothing new, particularly in home furnishings and remodeling, where consumers can see how a new product fits in their home before the purchase is made or paint applied.

According a survey conducted by AR systems provider Vertebrae, 78 percent of respondents would rather interact with an AR experience than watch a 30-second video. The survey also found that consumers are most interested in using AR for shopping, with more than half saying they prefer an AR experience that allows them to place items in their own environment.

PACE OF ADOPTION

Which comes first: consumer adoption or improved experience? It might be a circular argument — as consumers have become more comfortable with the product, the content has improved. “We’ve reached the point where the level of quality content is high and the scale is really high,” says Vince Cacace, founder and CEO of Vertebrae. “Those two things coming together have made AR more ubiquitous and less tied to a specific vertical.”

It’s not just the uses that have changed. Historically, a shopper would have to download an app to make AR work. “AR was initially valuable for high-consideration, low-conversion products,” Cacace says. “With the prevalence of 3D and AR, it is democratized to the point where everyone is capable of having an immersive experience.”

“It’s an exciting time for augmented reality,” says Joydeep Haldar, managing director and digital general manager of retail and consumer goods at IT services company DXC Technology. “Augmented reality has huge implications both on the online side of the business and the store side of the business.”

He says AR plays a large role in creating more compelling user experiences and is providing a new way of enhanced marketing. And “it’s infusing a lot of fun into the way that consumers interact and build relationships with brands.”

Both Cacace and Halder note that Apple and Google have driven AR forward. Apple’s AR kit, released in September 2017, made it easier for app developers to include AR in mobile applications.

Google is expected to roll out its WebXR broadly this year; Cacace says it should “allow for a more full-fledged augmented reality experience inside the browser. It will bring a wider and wider range of creative experiences to the web.”

As AR becomes more widely used and technology more accessible, retailers will respond by producing more 3D assets — a functional underpinning to AR.

“3D is important, not only on the product page to make the overall product experience better,” Cacace says, “but retailers are able to make shoppable AR experiences in Snapchat and Facebook.”

THE PERFECT FIT

Rebel Athletic sells customized cheerleading uniforms — think beyond Friday’s football game into a world of competitions and routines that combine athleticism with highly choreographed routines. Its sales representatives had samples that were sent to gyms for cheerleaders to try. They would be returned, washed and shipped out again.

“As our business grew, we spent $300,000 a year on fit kits,” says Karen Noseff Aldridge, Rebel Athletic’s president. “That does not include the back-end support of shipping them out, lost or stolen kits and having a team in our office with washers and dryers.”

That was just the start of the issues. “Kits stretch out of tolerance over time,” she says. “You don’t know at what point. Nobody has the manpower every two or three fittings to recall the kit back to corporate and measure out every piece.”

It was an imperfect system — about seven of every 100 uniforms would need to be remade, she says. Compounding the problem: The cluster of sales in a very short season meant there were never enough kits to go around. “It stunned me that this is the way things have been done for 40-plus years in our business,” Noseff Aldridge says.

A few years ago, she began exploring whether photos could be taken and turned into a scan to determine the appropriate size for each cheerleader. She decided to develop her own and landed on SevenTablets, a mobile app development company based in Dallas.

“They told us in one of our initial meetings: ‘Your timing is perfect. Had you come to us any earlier, the technology in the smartphones would not have been able to run this.’”

Together, Rebel and SevenTablets have solved the issue of fit — and now have an app called Fit Freedom, built on what SevenTablets President Shane Long calls the “lowest camera denominator.” The scan is converted into pixels and exact measurements for each individual.

“With machine learning, we started to eliminate multiple scans by using predictive analytics to predict the body shape,” Long says. “Every time we do a scan, the machine gets smarter.”

The process takes less than a minute and because the images are scans — not photos — there are no privacy issues. Rebel implemented the tool this year. “Our production season has started, and we’re delivering uniforms to cheerleaders that were made using the app,” Noseff Aldridge says. “Every day, we get word back, ‘No fit issues.’”

Already, several custom clothing manufacturers are engaged in conversations about acquiring the product; a consumer version is expected to launch this year. “The first step is getting consumer adoption,” Long says. “Then we’ll work with retailers.”

In their vision, online shoppers will complete the Fit Freedom profile. As they shop at online retailers, they will log into their Fit Freedom profile. If the retailer is a Fit Freedom partner, the shopper would see exactly which size would fit for each item.

“The beauty of the system is that once we have the scan and the perfect body dimensions, we have a 3D wireframe under your email address,” Long says. “You pick the garment. We pull the exact sizing charts from the retailer and make the size recommendation. Fit Freedom will show a graphical scale of where you fit on the sizing chart. That way, you’re seeing not only the size we recommend but where you are on that scale between two sizes.”

THE PERFECT HAT

Business done on the golf course is as old as business itself. For Tenth Street Hats, whose parent company Dorfman Pacific traces back almost 100 years, the idea launched on the greens was far from old school. Carson Finkle, Tenth Street’s CEO, was paired with an executive from Vertebrae and the conversation led to a spark.

“We were looking at ways to improve the user experience,” Finkle says. “Nowhere was augmented reality in my mind. Once we looked at some of their examples of what they had done, we saw how this could be a differentiator.”

Vertebrae handles the 3D imaging and the augmented reality based on photos Tenth Street provides. “We send over all the angles of photos and the models of the hats,” Finkle says. “They work their magic and send it back to us.”

The main selling point was the seamless integration into Tenth Street’s existing website, Finkle says. “You never want a customer to have to leave the site to download an app. I can activate it from the product page.”

While the 3D test first launched in September, with a big push in November, the lift was fairly immediate. “When I look at what products are moving, they tend to be the products that have the 3D AR elements,” Finkle says. “There could be a lot of factors to that. But it’s performing very well.”

Tenth Street is well positioned to take advantage of AR in ways which may not apply to other retailers, Finkle notes. “For individual products that can fit onto your body, you’re still pretty limited to what you can see with the camera on your phone,” he says. “People who are shopping on mobile can really only see what fits on their face. That’s why hats was a nice fit.”

TECHNOLOGY, EXPECTATION MERGE

AR can help enhance the customer experience in a bricks-and-mortar store application as well. Youth apparel retailer Tilly’s set the bar high, launching an AR-oriented scavenger hunt inside its stores. Customers who found three virtual coins hidden in images received a 20 percent discount coupon on their phones.

Youth apparel retailer Tilly’s launched an AR-oriented scavenger hunt inside its stores. Customers who found three virtual coins received a 20 percent discount coupon.

Haldar sees the opportunity for advanced product information online, though even that is what he considers a “basic” use. “A lot of cosmetic companies are pushing the envelope in terms of simulating skin tones and matching them up with corresponding beauty products,” he says. “That, to me, is pushing the envelope of really being able to simulate and capture images and then become a beauty advisor based on the data that a customer is willing to interact with.”

Gamification also has its place, but must be “fun and immersive,” Haldar says. Companies to watch include Converse and Adidas, the latter of which has extended the shopper relationship post-sale. “Adidas has allowed for some of the sneakers to get scanned so that you have a post-purchase experience in an augmented reality world,” Haldar says. “It’s not a one-off selling or buying experience but having an ongoing relationship. That unlocks the lifetime value of the customer.”

Clearly, AR is ready for its moment in the spotlight. Haldar sees a “complete confluence of devices and technology, with users who know how to use them and are getting extremely comfortable with them. Add in analytic and computational powers that are really increasing with the cloud.”

Then, he says, there’s “omnichannel 2.0, which brings more confidence for the consumer and is more engaging. It’s almost a perfect confluence of all of these things that are coming to bear.”

In some ways, it’s like a stone rolling downhill — and picking up speed as more and more developers create AR-oriented apps. Haldar says after Apple’s toolkit was introduced, more than 13 million AR apps were downloaded in the first six months that followed. “That will grow by about five or 10 times in the next month,” he says. “We are seeing that trend in the market and that is a huge demand.”

All of that has come together to create an atmosphere of experimentation — both in-store and online; Gap and Zara are among retailers testing some form of virtual fitting rooms. “If the right color isn’t on the shelf, you could give your customer the experience of wider SKUs,” Haldar says. “It increases the long tail of retail into the stores.”

Even if companies are not in the AR game, it’s likely their customers are. “There is a proliferation of devices. The consumer is becoming extremely savvy about future functionalities and how to use devices,” he says. “Sometimes retailers underestimate the fun aspect of engaging with customers. In the past, it was a very sterile relationship. Digital marketing spend on AR is growing at an extremely fast clip, which tells me the consumer is responding to it.”

Sandy Smith grew up working in her family’s grocery store, where the only handheld was a pricemarker
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