Digital distribution reshapes the role of retail stores and already today, we see brands and retailers setting themselves apart. By using augmented reality tools like Microsoft’s HoloLens to rethink space management, they improve the shopper experience through the whole journey.
Augmented Reality is Here Today
Now, I am far from being considered a ‘techie’, but a recent opportunity to test the development version of Microsoft’s Hololens, was really an opportunity I couldn’t miss. Courtesy of Zuehlke Engineering Austria, who is working on developing the technology applications for the tool, I was able to see what augmented reality is already capable of. I came out truly impressed by the capabilities, so let me share some of my thoughts on how augmented reality might help brands and retailers to reshape their customer interactions and set themselves apart from the competition.
Technology Needs to Provide Benefits to Shoppers and Retailers Alike
The list of tech gadgets that supposedly change the world forever and disrupt whole industries seems to be endless, if one believes the industry magazines. Smart mirrors, smart beacons and most recently Amazon’s Echo Show are examples. Are they cool but expensive gimmicks or real game-changers? Only the future will tell.
To be successful, any new technology needs to better serve retailers’ customers throughout the shopping process, or improve their backend processes to reduce cost or improve quality. Microsoft’s Hololens for example is still a somewhat bulky device – it’s placed over your head and you look through the front, sort of like heavy ski goggles.
The key functionality of an augmented reality tool like the HoloLens, is that it allows the user to place and see text or picture information in the surrounding space and explore it if needed, in a 3 dimensional way.
Typically, actual use cases for augmented reality technology today are focused on training people, sales support, or maintenance of machines. You can for example, have construction plans of engines and actual 3D explosion models projected in front of your eyes, together with text that describes specific elements. This might be hugely beneficial if you’re an engineer that needs to repair a car engine.
Beyond the Limitations of Store Walls – Ideas About Use Cases For Augmented Reality
1. Your Sales Assistant To-Go
Retailer Saturn just launched a first ‘HoloTour’ using the Microsoft HoloLens. During a guided tour of a Saturn store, items from Saturn’s product range will be shown. Shoppers will put on the HoloLens and see a virtual figure named Paula, who’ll walk ahead of them through the store – she can speak, too. Paula will show them several products, explaining them in detail while further product information is displayed in the visual field in front of the shoppers’ eyes. In this capacity it’s basically an assistant to-go, taking away the pain of either being approached by a ‘pushy’ salesperson, or not finding one when needed.
2. Your CRM System To-Go
Now let’s take the other side of the sales equation. Think for a second about your trusted sales agents on the shop floor. Wouldn’t it be great if they could actually see all of the data that has been stored in your CRM system, about a shopper? Once she walks in with her loyalty card in her purse, your sales agents could literally see in front of them (and right next to the shopper), if she wanted to be actively approached, what types of products she’s interested in, etc. There are endless ways of equipping your sales teams in real time and in real life, with valuable information to better serve your customers. This will make the shopping journey for customers more enjoyable and for you more profitable.
3. Your Change Room To-Go
Let’s take the idea of the magic/smart mirrors one step further. Imagine you could try on all the products, on your own avatar, in the privacy of your own home? Wouldn’t that be great! With glasses like HoloLens it’s certainly within reach. Imagine logging in to a retailers’ website (or browsing it on your smartphone) and seeing the products fitted on you, in front of you. You like what you see? Then just order it and pick it up wherever and whenever is most convenient to you.
4. Your Visual Merchandising Manager To Go
Augmented reality can be an interesting support tool with backend processes too. Imagine showing new store sets visually in 3D to your store staff and enabling them to actually walk through them. Don’t you think this might help with setting up the store with new products, quicker and better than ever before?
5. Your Brand Ambassador To Go
Why not make your superhero available to compete against while shopping in your local store. Imagine PUMA offering you a realtime 3D race in their store, against Usain Bolt while wearing their newest running gear? Wouldn’t that be cool and a real differentiator, both for the brand and the retailer?
Now, these are only some initial ideas and there will still be more time needed to make the technology really user friendly, but to me it is clear today, that the list of possible use cases is much longer than what can be shared in a short blog article. Clearly, all stages of the shopping process can and will be improved by using augmented reality tools.
We Need to Start to Think Differently About Retail Space
Adoption of the technology will be driven by the degree that it provides a return on investment, and how ‘shopping-friendly; it turns out to be. Technology should integrate seamlessly into the shopping experience and not interfere with customers who are coming just to browse or to buy something specific.
With the current physical limitations due to the size of the augmented reality device, I expect the more immediate returns and less obstacles to usage, will be in the backend processes of retailers (e.g. staff training, visual merchandising). Or as an occasional ‘cool gadget’ that brands use to bring their ‘lifestyle’ to life at POS or at their fashion shows.
Anyway, with the speed of technological development, it may only be months or possibly years before augmented reality ‘goggles’ actually become no more than a lens and the barriers to usage are almost totally eliminated.
Now is the time to radically rethink how and where retail space starts and ends. It seems like the Big Bang theory is right and even retail space is expanding.
About the Author:
Christoph Berendes grew up as a consultant and brand manager in the bricks-&-mortar world. His passion and the belief in the changes to come turned him into a digital manager. He currently assists in growing a digital B2B2C platform (www.onquality.de). You can reach Christoph best by email.