Tesco's Discover app

Apps augmenting reality to drive retail sales

Leading retailers are turning to augmented reality to drive sales, brand reinforcement, customer relationships, and to improve the shopping experience.

The success of e-commerce has caused retailers to find ways of adopting the personalised interactivity of online shopping to make the offline shopping experience more compelling. To this end augmented reality (AR) could prove the most effective technology for getting potential purchasers to engage – and spend – more.

The AR trend aims to build consumer relationships, boost revenue channels, and add value to the shopper experience. The omni-channel approach relates to how retailers can attract their target consumers across multiple traditional and non-traditional interactions. These include e-tail and e-commerce, use of social media, plus in-store technology such as virtual mirrors and touchscreen digital signage – all integrated in a physical store, and often making use of shoppers' own mobile devices, ranging from tablet PCs to smartphones.

Retailers have traditionally relied on print advertising campaigns to promote products, whether advertised in magazines or billboards; the industry is now redefining its business model by implementing newer marketing strategies, that are made available to customers in the store itself.

AR technology holds multiple attractions for retailers. It allows consumers to interact with products, enabling them to feel closer to the 'real world' equivalent. It works like standard AR applications by superimposing animated graphics, audio, and video over a physical environment that's being photographically depicted in real-time. Typically, a smartphone or tablet with a camera and AR-enabled software can trigger the data to view the AR presentation. AR advertising and marketing campaigns typically come in the form of a mobile app.

According to market-watcher Juniper Research, retailers are keen to deploy AR capabilities within their apps and marketing materials, which will amount to $300m in revenues, this year. The analyst's 'Augmenting Reality – Enhancing Mobile' report reveals that polled retailers now perceive AR as a fully-fledged means of increasing engagement with consumers, as a means of providing additional product information or in the form of branded virtual games and other activities. While retailers are showcasing AR applications, however, the report cautions that the lack of consumer awareness of AR remains a potential inhibitor, and of the technological limitations of AR-enablers (such as phone camera, GPS, and digital compasses), which can result in AR experiences failing to live-up to consumer expectations.

The Juniper Research report also points out that even some of the higher-end smartphone cameras lacked sufficient sensitivity to trigger the AR experience unless lighting conditions were optimal. This aside, the report revealed 2.5 billion AR apps will be downloaded on smartphones or tablets per annum by 2017. This demand is good news for app developers: AR is setting new challenges for software designers. 

As well as driving sales, retailers are also pushing for special customer experiences. In the run-up to Christmas 2012 UK high-street fashion chain New Look partnered with Blippar – one of the leading providers of mobile AR development and delivery platforms – to develop AR-enabled window displays to launch model and actress Kelly Brook's new cosmetics range in December 2012. For the duration of the campaign consumers could download the Blippar app, and 'blipp' Brook's signature which features on the window display, and virtually 'try on' her nail varnish range, as well as have their picture taken with her image.

Another high-profile AR campaign involves supermarket chain Tesco launching cover-to-cover AR-enabled magazines, including Real Food, Tesco Magazine,Wine Magazine and Better Value. Consumers can download the free Tesco Discover app, developed by AR app design specialist Aurasma, onto any smartphone device to access how-to videos, learn more about the product, and buy groceries.

The April/May 2013 edition includes an array of AR-enabled features, such as the front cover uploads a video of BBC-TV's 'Great British Bake-Off'-winner John Whaite's specially-shot interview in which he enlarges on his passion for baking. Other pages enable users to view other videos, buy ingredients or find out more about them, visit Tesco's Facebook and Twitter platforms and learn how to make different cocktails, and to find out more about Tesco's wine selection. Tesco's virtual Wine Magazine AR-features includes 'buy now' functionalities and videos of wine specialists explaining different types of wines, but in particular the original source of the ingredients, its vintage, and what foods match well.

Although the current examples of AR in retail depend on customers' own smart devices, this is not the only model for delivering the AR to the shopfloor. Lego, for instance, led the way in 2011 (albeit with a slightly different delivery model) by introducing a AR feature into its branded stores worldwide. This was based on customers taking boxed Lego products to a static AR device – DigitalBox – that displayed a real-time reflective video image'that superimposed AR features based on the specific product being presented. For example, some of the actual fully-assembled models in 3D that could be created from any given size of Lego set appeared on screen on the lid of the box, and could be viewed from multiple dimensions as the customer presented the box from different angles.

Additional piloted projects include charity Oxfam's Shelflife app, which lets consumers learn about a donated item's 'history', and fast-food restaurant McDonald's TrackMyMacca app, which gives an insight to where ingredients in a McDonald's meal originate from. Automobile manufacturer Volkswagen AR Golf Cabriolet app lets users explore the vehicle and play with its features. 

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