Will the Future of Grocery Be Augmented or Virtual?


Not long ago, shopping for groceries online or using an in-store grocery app felt improbably futuristic. We worried about the time it would take to browse through online shelves and inventory, or if delivered produce would be ripe enough or bruised.

Today such questions seem antiquated — the pandemic has inspired even very late adopters to avoid the store and shop online. And with product releases such as the iPhone 12, which has introduced augmented reality (specifically through its new LiDAR scanner that helps the device understand its surroundings) into the necessary suite of smartphone features, grocers and brands alike have a mandate to push their digital envelope.

Augmented and virtual realities will be at the forefront of differentiation and shopper satisfaction in the coming decade. But stores and brands will need to demonstrate that AR and VR provide real value and are not gimmicks or hassles. These technologies have been touted as game changers in the video game industry and in live sporting for years, yet neither has quite delivered on its promise. So, mainstream audiences are understandably skeptical about their efficacy in helping with everyday items.

Of the two, augmented reality would seem to have an easier path toward mass consumer usage and adoption, at least in-store. This is because most smartphones can handle AR right out of the box. This is even more prevalent now with the new 5G and LiDAR capabilities introduced in the iPhone 12, which will allow the devices to run complex AR programs without the need for large processors.

The process is simple: point camera, see results. Products dancing on shelves. Celebrity endorsements playing out live in the aisle. Coupons and promotions materializing out of thin air. Or real-time customer support as you determine if the product is right for your requirements.

Shoppers already using in-store grocery apps could seamlessly integrate AR into their experience, and even those who don’t use an app could be persuaded to point their camera if the inducementssavings, recipes, entertainmentwere suitably attractive.

Virtual reality, requiring extra (and expensive) equipment appears much less likely to play an in-store role for consumers any time soon. Yet VR still holds vast potential for the industry.

Whether adding entertainment value or actual value, quality of content is at least as important as the tech itself.

For example, retailers like Walmart use VR to help train associates, and one can easily imagine a future of totally immersive customer support between shoppers at home and associates in stores or elsewhere.

Some factors could accelerate VR. A well-designed app, reduced pricing and the rollout of faster 5G networks would help VR make an impact sooner rather than later. For the time being, VR’s potential appears to be offering consumers an in-home benefit rather than an in-store one.

While we await a full sensory transformation to occur, there are a few developments currently impacting the grocery experience that are instructive to consider. Brands like Jim Beam seem to grasp the most fundamental requirement of a successful new tech experience: It ought to be fun. Shoppers can point their camera at a bottle of JB and watch the shelf come alive.

Rich with stories and information, a good AR experience should not only offer entertainment, but also increase consumer association with a brand’s narrative and purpose.  

Of course, AR does not need to entertain utility can also inspire consumer use. Imagine a shopper with food allergies using AR to “see” all the items with ingredients she should avoid. Or going to the store with no shopping list, only to have recipes built from items on the closest shelves “appear” in front of the shopper. Whether adding entertainment value or actual value, quality of content is at least as important as the tech itself.

It remains to be seen to what extent COVID-19 accelerates these trends, but grocers should be ready for technology to continue to play a larger role in the future. They can start by testing new tech today and having it ready for people when they want it.

Perhaps VR could help alleviate the isolation many consumers feel in lockdown. Maybe AR has safety applications no one’s yet considered. With a little vision the industry can create rich new world’s for brands and consumers to reconnect, either in-store or out.

Robb Powell is president of e-commerce services at Advantage Solutions.

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