If you’re anything like us, you first heard of augmented reality (AR) in 2016, with the release of Pokemon Go. Since then, it’s been popping up everywhere: whether in our favorite games, or in sectors as diverse as real estate, travel, and data science.
But did you know that an increasing number of consumers are harnessing augmented reality for online shopping – and that AR can offer big benefits for ecommerce stores?
Below, we unpack what AR’s rising popularity means for online business owners. What is AR, exactly – and how does it differ from virtual reality (VR)? What are its key applications, who’s doing it best, and why should your business sit up and take note?
Read on – we’re answering all these questions, and more.
Augmented reality (AR) is a type of tech that provides an enhanced version of the world. Unlike virtual reality (VR), which immerses you in a fully artificial environment, AR simply adds to the one that’s already there.
It’s the real world – just with an additional, computer-generated image layer superimposed over the top.
Remember when Pokemon Go was everywhere? That’s AR. Through an app on your phone, you view the world around you, with one difference – that there’s Pokemon everywhere. You might see Squirtle hanging out on your garden fence, Bulbasaur in the local park, or Charmander outside the dime store.
But it’s not only the gaming industry applying AR. The tech is also reinventing the manufacturing, learning and development, logistics, and data management industries. And now ecommerce, too!
The dictionary defines virtual reality as:
“The computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way.”
Which…pretty much sums it up! While AR simply ‘augments’ (adds to) the real world, VR creates an all new one. And, while AR can typically be accessed via an app on your smartphone, VR requires specialist equipment, such as electronic helmets, or gloves with sensors.
The gaming industry’s already caught on to VR’s possibilities – you can pick up a PlayStation VR at your local store, for example – as have the healthcare and military sectors. But VR is becoming increasingly relevant for ecommerce businesses, too.
Clothes stores can, for instance, welcome prospective customers into a simulated environment to ‘try on’ outfits. Homeware stores, on the other hand, could generate a room full of virtual furniture – allowing potential buyers to get a sense for how the items would look in their home.
VR is exciting. But when it comes to ecommerce, AR is the better tool. It requires less equipment (a smartphone, rather than a full-on headset), so is both more portable and accessible. Plus, AR is still grounded in the real world, rather than a manufactured one – so is likely to be far more palatable for casual users, or tech-reticent people.
So, how might AR look in the realm of ecommerce? And how is it being applied by online businesses already? Let’s find out.
Giving customers context
We’ve all been there. Standing in a furniture shop, admiring a large leather couch. Wanting to take it home, but plagued by a nagging doubt – ’how will it actually look in my living room?’
AR can soothe these woes – and boost conversion rates accordingly.
Customers can place a (digital) sofa in their living room, or see how a particular print might look on their bedroom wall. By adding crucial context – and allowing people to form bonds with a product, before they’ve even ordered it – AR can be a potent weapon in your ecommerce arsenal.
Letting people ‘try it on’
One of the great advantages high street stores have always had over their online counterparts? That nothing quite beats that feeling of walking into a shop, browsing the racks, and trying something on.
But with AR, that long-held bragging right is under threat. With a flick of a wrist, AR offers smartphone-wielding customers the chance to see exactly how a dress would look on them, or – in the case of L’Oreal – which shade of lipstick suits them best.
And, if the products you sell online are customizable, you can harness AR to let your customers personalize these products themselves. They can try out your products’ various colors, patterns, and setups, and tinker with them until they settle on the right style.
Provide clear instructions
Anyone who’s ever struggled with an overly complex instruction manual knows it – following the steps isn’t always easy.
With AR though, it can be. By overlaying instructions onto a live image of whatever you’re assembling, AR apps can – and maybe soon, will – negate the need for physical manuals.
Market to your social media following
Remember the case of the Texas lawyer who appeared in court, via Zoom, as a cat?
That’s an AR filter working its magic. And, if you have the know-how, you can create one yourself on Instagram.
Whether these filters ask your audience questions, show them what they’d look like with a beard, or tell them which Scooby-Doo character they are, AR is a fantastic way to market to your Instagram following. It’s a great way to keep your brand top of mind with your current audience, raise awareness of it to newbies, and – ideally – sell products, too.
By providing both the ‘fun’ and the ‘wow’ factor in spades, AR filters can become an integral part in your social media strategy’s creation.
We’ve covered several examples of how your ecommerce store can leverage AR for awareness and conversions.
Now, let’s look at some of the tech’s key benefits for online business owners. Why should your ecommerce store jump on the AR train?
By offering your potential customers a novel, fun, and – most importantly – interactive way to communicate with your brand, you’re making it more likely that they’ll do so.
Compare a traditional form of marketing – let’s say an ad on the billboard or subway – with the attention-grabbing effect of an engaging AR filter. One of these you’ll see, then forget about. The other you can play with, share with your friends, then save to revisit later. Which one would you remember?
Bring customizable products to life
When you have so many products on your site, it’s difficult to make them stand out. Most ecommerce websites have gridlocks of products – stuffed in side by side, with nothing to differentiate them from each other (or worse: from your competitors!).
AR can fix this. By letting your customer edit and personalize your products to their exact preferences, you can imbue your bog standard images with movement and magic; bringing them to life with vibrancy and vigor.
Personalize the customer experience
Whether it’s helping a customer visualize how a table or sofa will look in their living room, or which color paint to opt for in the den, AR helps them form a personal connection to the product.
It ensures the customer never feels like ‘a number’, and boosts their perceptions of your business as relatable, empathetic, and human.
It also makes it likely that they’ll eschew other brands, too. After all, if they’ve gone to all the trouble to use AR to compare your site’s colors and products, they’re unlikely to then jump ship to another company!
Reduce return rates
Statistics suggest that at least 30% of online store orders result in returns – compared to less than 9% of purchases in bricks and mortar stores. It makes sense, too – people can’t try on online items before they buy. So, they end up having to send things back because they don’t look right, or are the wrong size.
For online businesses, this is an issue – but one that, thankfully, AR can solve.
By allowing consumers to ‘try on’ products (be they makeup, clothes, or jewellry), customers can be sure their purchase doesn’t just look right, but feels right, too. There’ll be less indecision at the point of sale, and – hopefully – more satisfaction when they open the package.
Last – but certainly not least – AR can boost your business’s sales. (And, as the data suggests, by up to 200%, too!)
This benefit feels pretty intuitive. After all, if you can use AR to engage your customers, reduce return rates, and personalize your products, well…more sales won’t be too far behind!
As we’ve seen here, AR isn’t some new-fangled ‘fad’ – nor is it something that doesn’t concern your business or sector.
AR has proven – and is continuing to prove – it’s no gimmick. And that it has applications across a diverse array of industries and settings. Moreover, AR is staking a claim as one of the most effective tools in the ecommerce kit: be it for engaging users, reducing return rates, personalizing the customer experience, or bringing products to life.
Ultimately, get AR right and it won’t just be your customer’s reality you’ll be augmenting. It’ll be your sales, too!
To learn more about how to improve your customers’ experience, read our article on online costumer service.
Fancy making your own? Hootsuite has a simple, step-by-step guide to guide you through building your own AR filters for Instagram.