Could COVID-19 Accelerate Augmented Reality Adoption for Retailers?


Even when the COVID-19 pandemic is over, some of the shopping habits you’re forming now will certainly stick around. Retailers are already jumping on the augmented reality bandwagon to improve the in-store customer experience, and smaller retailers will need to catch up to stay relevant in a post-pandemic world.

I realized the extent that COVID-19 had accelerated AR usage when I recently dined at a local Mexican restaurant. Every table now has a QR code you have to scan to see the menu. This restaurant doesn’t even have a website, yet it’s using QR codes!

This makes sense, though: QR codes represent perhaps the lowest entry point to AR — and one that’s in increasingly high demand since the pandemic began. Seek (which integrates QR codes into AR solutions for clients such as Walmart and says customer websites have experienced a 600% surge in AR usage on its clients’ websites from March onward.

But whether the adopter is a much-loved local restaurant or a Fortune 500 brand, QR isn’t the end of what the AR umbrella can provide customers.

The Social Side of AR

Virtual reality will likely see a slowdown in retail applications, as the headset was a barrier even before people were ultra-aware of germs. AR, however, provides a real, social experience.

Now, ask yourself these questions:

  • How can you harness AR to take advantage of pent-up demand for social interaction post-COVID?
  • How can you seed the journey into the store and gamify the shopping experience?
  • How can you use AR to guide consumers through an uncertain journey as they navigate new social distancing guidelines and sanitation measures?

Retailer Showfields is doing just that with its new app, Magic Wand, which is designed to help customers shop in-store without touching anything. Shoppers can use the app to browse and buy items, or they can point their phones at store displays to access relevant information. We call this BYOD, or bring your own device.

Although Showfields has seen a decrease in foot traffic (as have many other brands), conversion rates are up. Consumers who come through the door do so for a reason, and the Magic Wand app both enhances their experience and helps them feel safe.

AR Helps Consumers Play in Your World

AR is about showing, not telling. We’re in a world of “choose your own adventure,” and AR is the perfect tool for retailers wanting to engage and delight customers.

When you’re deciding how to implement this technology, consider how you can immerse your consumers in a brand experience to help them visualize how your product or brand fits in with their lifestyle. For instance, you might want to virtually help consumers test out products, such as beauty items, furniture, appliances, or even home remodels.

You can also use AR to provide a shared experience, such as helping consumers visually imagine a decision about landscaping or backyard destination enhancements (think a new grill or children’s playscape equipment).

Unlike traditional marketing collateral, which is static, AR allows you to personalize your customers’ experiences and invite them to play in your world. Here’s what to keep in mind during the integration process:

1. Make it shareable 

The most effective AR tool is collaborative and social. Make it shareable so customers can engage other people in the experience. You’ll also want to add an element of gamification — we’re discovery-fueled creatures who enjoy puzzles and adventures.

2. Let consumers explore 

For a more well-rounded approach, focus on the end goal instead of the immediate task. Let’s say a customer wants to buy a couch. The customer’s broader goal is likely decorating a space, so how can you creatively tie other elements into the AR experience?

Perhaps you could partner with a reusable wallpaper brand to show how the couch still anchors the room even if you decide to change the look of your walls. Regardless of the situation, the trick is to increase the contents of the basket without feeling overly pushy.

3. Think of AR like a road map, not a project 

AR should be personalized to your brand and your customers’ needs. Unlike an agency that sells one-off experiences, a development team can build a platform that you can easily add content to, giving you the flexibility to create exactly what you need and make adjustments over time.

COVID-19 has challenged retailers in many ways, but it also represents an opportunity to creatively engage consumers like never before. In particular, AR offers retailers an accessible way to engage and connect with consumers and soothe their fears through uncertain times.

If you haven’t given these integrations a shot, why not start now? You might not get another opportunity as ripe as this one.

Scott T. Reese is chief technology officer at Harbor Retail. He spent the first 10 years of his career learning how to be an effective, inspiring leader in the United States Marine Corps. Then, he spent the past two decades collaborating to make a difference as an expert in corporate process and an effective consultant in the field of technology.

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