A fundamental transition is taking place in marketing. Brands are no longer putting the products and services they sell at the center of their outreach. The brand experience, the satisfaction derived from engaging with the brand and having expectations met and exceeded, is the new essential instrument to building brand equity, keeping your customer acquisition funnel stocked, driving revenues, and outcompeting everyone else.
It’s not that desirable products, exclusive features, and worthwhile services aren’t still important to brand growth, but they have been relegated to prerequisite status. In other words, they are the new bare minimum. To not just tread water, but actually gain ground, you need more. That realization has spurred an arms race in retail to optimize customer experiences, and one of the smartest new channels to emerge has been in Augmented Reality (AR).
“65 percent of shoppers would like to use AR to find out more product information and 55 percent said it makes the shopping experience more fun.”
AR tech is built primarily around mobile platforms. It analyzes camera data and superimposes new information over the real world on a device’s screen. The technology has been around for a while, but now that both Apple and Google have baked it right into their latest operating systems (with ARKit and ARCore, respectively), retail brands have really picked up steam in adding AR capabilities to their apps and other digital platforms.
Here are seven retail brands that are already putting the tech to work:
Competition in the athletic footwear market is incredibly energetic right now. Sneakerheads are all vying to cop the hottest new kicks, and the perennial top two companies, Nike and adidas, both want to be the brand that generates the most passionate following—and they are using AR to make that happen.
At this year’s ComplexCon, a lifestyle brand conference held by youth culture magazine, “Complex,” adidas democratized access to some of its most coveted sneakers with an AR activation they dubbed “Unlock the Drop.” Conference attendees followed AR-enhanced signage on their smartphones to lockers scattered around the venue where adidas Originals limited edition sneakers had been hidden.
Once they found the pair and selected a size, they could pay directly in the app without ever interacting with a salesperson and collect their shoes. “A transaction that would have taken over two hours in the past is now served within minutes of the AR release,” said adidas North America’s senior director of digital activation.
Far from lagging behind adidas, Nike has been moving shoes via AR since at least a year ago. Fans were tracking the upcoming SB Dunk High Pro “Momofukus,” basketball shoes designed in collaboration with chef David Chang, for months before they hit store shelves. Nike knew their release would be a great opportunity to direct attention to its SNRKS app.
To get their hands on a pair, shoppers had to capture an AR trigger embedded on a page of the menu at Chang’s Fuku restaurant in NYC (generous fans uploaded the image online for the benefit of users who couldn’t make the physical trip). Graphic posters placed outside of Momofuku restaurants also served as AR triggers.
The initial goal of Nike’s AR activation was to generate buzz for its app and to make it easier for casual fans to get their hands on hard to get shoes that are usually snapped up by shopping bots and diehards who then immediately sell them on third-party marketplaces for hundreds of dollars over the retail price.
For their second go-round, the release of the Concord Air Jordan 11 in late 2018, their stated objective was instead to enhance the shopping experience. That ethos also guided the development of their newest temple to all things Nike, the House of Innovation 000, a 68,000-square-foot flagship store in NYC where products and signage will be responsive to the SNRKS app.
Lego, the Finish building toy with devotees of all ages, launched its first ever global Christmas campaign for the 2018 holiday season. Along with a traditional TV commercial, the brand launched a new AR filter for Snapchat.
Previously, the toymaker released the LEGO AR-Studio in 2017, an interactive app that lets children create and play with virtual building block sets that are superimposed over the real world, so their imaginary Lego castles can live in their actual backyards.
There’s a classic case in computer science and logistics called the “Traveling Salesman Problem,” which asks planners to come up with the most efficient route for a traveling salesman to visit a large number of cities. It has helped companies like Google, UPS, and Uber develop algorithms that optimize GPS-based apps.
That same problem is now being examined on a slightly smaller scale: in-store. Instead of figuring out how to route people across a country, computer scientists are analyzing shopping lists, comparing them to floorplans, and figuring out the fastest and easiest path through the store. Eventually, consumers may be given the same options they get from their GPS-enabled devices, such as the choice to choose a route that is slower, but which lets them experience more of the store.
Hardware store chain, Lowe’s is among the first major retailers to put in-store navigation, powered by augmented reality into the hands of its shoppers. Their system uses geolocation technology and their mobile app in what they are claiming is “the first retail application of indoor mapping using augmented reality.” Right now, the feature is limited to devices that contain Google’s Tango motion-tracking tech, but eventually a larger segment of the mobile market will get access.
French fashion brand Lacoste recently added AR capabilities to its mobile app, LCST, which lets shoppers virtually try on shoes. The app also acts as a point of interaction for AR-enhanced promotional postcards, as well as window displays and in-store signage.
The display window is a time-tested means of attracting attention and encouraging foot traffic to enter a store. Well, outdoor wear brand Timberland took that approach into the modern era with AR mirrors at several of its retail outlets.
Passersbys can virtually try a new denim jacket and a pair of hiking boots, and if they like what they see, the real items are only a few steps away. Plus, the system makes it easy for them to save images of themself in their digital duds to share with their social media followers.
With physical retail steadily losing ground to ecommerce, department stores like Macy’s are constantly on the lookout for ways to enhance the customer experience and compete with digital native upstarts. Their newest project is an AR app that makes it easier to shop for furniture at home.
Not only does the app help shoppers visualize what furniture will look like in their homes (and if it will fit), but it gives them significantly more options. Large items like couches and beds take up a lot of floorspace in a department store, while digital showrooms can stock a limitless assortment.
AR Is Here To Stay
More than just chasing the latest shiny object, market research is validating the decision to invest in AR: A study by Incisiv, for example, found that almost half of all consumers expressed a greater willingness to shop at a retailer that has enhanced their shopping experience with augmented or virtual reality.
Digi-Capital forecast that the total market for AR could top $90 billion by 2022, and Retail Perceptions examined the impact of AR specifically on retailers, finding that 65 percent of shoppers would like to use AR to find out more product information and 55 percent said AR makes the shopping experience more fun.
The race is on to win in the experience economy, and AR is proving itself to be a powerful differentiator and a surprisingly accessible and practical means of creating value for brands and consumers alike.