Virtual and Augmented Reality Become Retail Reality at NRF Big Show
Primarily driven by the ubiquitous presence of mobile devices, today's retail experiences are becoming less "place-specific" and more driven by an individual shopper's context — i.e., wherever and whenever they choose to focus and shop. Technology advancements continue to drive alignment across all retail touchpoints, and this year’s National Retail Federation (NRF) Big Show introduced a new wave of digital capabilities that will soon be delivering compelling and "individualized" consumer shopping experiences, going beyond the levels of "segmented personalization" currently available through many retailers. The bar for customer experience, purchasing and loyalty is getting raised higher, yet again, as customers let retailers know that, ultimately, a compelling shopping experience will need to be available at both "your place and mine."
Your Place: The Retail Store
Within the retail store environment, the shopping experience can be wrapped around your customers’ specific places as virtual reality (VR) recreates the consumer’s home setting, letting them experience what a new kitchen, new furniture or a new deck would feel like in their own home while physically being in the retail store environment where they can touch, feel and operate the various products they're considering. Enabled by the rapidly evolving technology behind VR, several leading retailers are now offering in-store VR labs within which consumers can create their home environments and then enhance and modify them against the products and services that retailer provides.
A leading provider to these retail VR experiences is Marxent. This innovative company has developed capabilities within several market segments, including furniture (Ashley Furniture); kitchen remodeling (American Woodmark); and exterior decking (Azek). As this market develops traction, the cost to the retailer of establishing this technology will likely be increasingly shared by participating product brands they sell as those brands show support for the VR presentation of their specific products within the retailer’s in-store VR experience.
Another trend in this level of "individualization" can be seen in the footwear and apparel market segments, a place where fit is critical to the satisfaction and longer term brand loyalty of many consumers.
One leading technology group, Volumental, offers an in-store foot scanning technology that assures a complete 3-D image of the consumer’s foot, including arch, height and any nuances such as a heel spur or bunion. This data is then mapped to rigorous data profiling and customer purchase history of specific models and sizes to assure the best possible fit and performance. This in-store experience also helps the retailer secure profile and contact information, since the consumer becomes invested in having access to their specific measurements.
Similar scanning technology is offered for apparel retailers, which takes the guesswork out of sizing and fit while also securing data-driven measurements that transcend the ever-fluctuating size scales of various clothing brands across any given segment.
My Place: Home, Work or Mobile
Traditionally the domain of 2-D flat screens, consumers’ home, work or mobile experiences have always required a fair bit of imagination to bridge the presentation of specific products within those environments. As showcased at NRF this week, Tango, an augmented reality (AR) technology by Google, is positioned to bring 3-D AR to the forefront of retail shopping and purchasing experience in 2017. At the core of this exciting capability is newly advanced hardware, the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro mobile device. This "dual lens" and laser technology enables the device and establishes depth of field, distance and dimension, like the human eye, such that 3-D product images can be overlaid onto 3-D camera images as directed by the user.
For 2017, Tango has partnered with several leading retailers to bring forward into real-life retail models and environments. In all cases, the inherent issue of fit is addressed by establishing the three-dimensional context of the consumer’s need, whether the fit of a piece of clothing or the fit for furniture or a TV in their specific living space. By aligning the fit criteria, as confirmed by both consumer validation and the 3-D imaging capabilities of the Lenovo device, Tango can then present selected product options, in 3-D and within that 3-D context. The consumer benefits from a highly engaging interactive experience and has much greater purchasing confidence, while the retailer benefits from higher customer brand engagement and satisfaction; fewer returns due to fit; and reduced instances of multi-item ordering/returns as the consumer takes a shotgun approach to finding the best fit items.
Tango in Action
Gap (Apparel): GAP will now be leveraging Tango to deliver an AR experience to its customers, both within their home setting or in-store. In all cases, the backdrop for the merchandising and comparison experience is directed by the consumer in their real-world environment.
Interacting with the 3-D interface, the consumer simply needs to:
- confirm their sizing to create a "virtual mannequin" sized to their measurements;
- select the desire apparel item(s) to place on the customized mannequin;
- view, match and compare these clothing items, in 3-D, including size comparisons; and
- purchase (in-store or digital).
Wayfair (Furniture): As a leading online furniture retailer, Wayfair has partnered with Tango to transcend the physical space limitations for online furniture and allow its customers to select fully dimensional furniture and place it within their homes through an AR overlay.
The selected item can be chosen based on dimensional measurements ("what will fit into this space?") or selected and maneuvered into different locations to confirm fit and design alignment with existing furniture. Additionally, because the image is fully 3-D, the consumer can zoom in and validate details such as wood grain and fabric texture.
Amazon.com (TVs): A third early-adoption segment addresses the historic difficulty online retailers have had in selling large-screen TVs given consumer apprehension over appropriate fit within a given wall space and the depth dimension of how far into the room various models might protrude. The Tango app for Amazon will allow users to point their cameras at their walls, select different TV models from an intuitive menu, and have those TVs projected, in full 3-D, onto their own space. The TV can be slid around to different locations, and the user can "walk around" to the side of the TV to confirm the forward dimensions as well as the wall footprint.
The NRF's Big Show continued to explore the realm of the possible and "coming soon" in today’s dynamic retail market. As ever, establishing the right fit of any product to each individual customer remains the challenge — and opportunity — of both online and brick-and-mortar retailers. This year’s exciting advancements in VR and AR take tangible steps towards making these technologies a reality. Another round of advanced applications are at hand to deliver these capabilities and consumer experiences across all types of retail businesses in the coming years, and those retailers that adopt early will benefit from the brand engagement, customer loyalty and product sellthrough that has driven retail growth for decades.
Jeff Pratt is the commerce experience practice director at Verndale, a marketing technology agency.
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