AR is the Secret Sauce That Will Entice Shoppers Back to Brick-and-Mortar Grocery
The brick-and-mortar bounce-back is upon us. After a year of pandemic-related lockdowns, store closures, and social distancing precautions, foot traffic to leading grocery stores came roaring back in the second quarter, with some even reaching pre-pandemic levels. And with more states and localities easing COVID-19 restrictions in recent weeks, signs of a “return to normalcy” abound.
But even as shoppers make their way back into grocery stores, they aren’t doing so with the same mindset as before. Having grown accustomed to the ease, speed and accessibility of e-commerce, consumers increasingly expect the same kind of experience in-store — which is why advanced technology won’t only be the engine of e-commerce growth, but will also be indispensable to brick-and-mortar stores’ ability to attract shoppers and keep them coming back.
As the world of retail — like the world of work — goes hybrid, shoppers will buy some items online some of the time, and some items offline at other times. While they won’t necessarily be consistent in how they shop, one constant will be what they want out of the retail experience, be it online or in-store: seamless journeys powered by sophisticated technology.
That’s where augmented reality (AR) technology comes in. AR can empower retailers to deliver enjoyable, friction-free, successful customer experiences that will consistently entice shoppers.
The Rise and Rise of AR
From automotive innovation to surgical training, AR is making waves across a broad swath of industries and disciplines. And while it hasn’t yet been widely deployed in retail, that’s set to change in the coming years. Brick-and-mortar retailers that get in on the action now will position themselves at the leading edge of a new generation of sleek in-store shopping journeys.
Analyst forecasts underscore the remarkable trajectory AR is likely to follow, with experts predicting that the global AR market will be worth $340 billion by 2028, growing at some 44 percent per year. By the end of this decade, it’s hardly inconceivable that when we’re planning a journey from A to B, we won’t be pulling out our smartphones and opening Google Maps, but instead donning a pair of AR glasses that show us the route.
AR offers users an engaging, intelligent understanding of their physical environments, and that’s surely a benefit for shoppers seeking to make informed decisions about which products to buy in-store.
AR and the Shopping Experience
Long before COVID-19 upended customer behavior and the world as we knew it, the argument over the rise of grocery e-commerce centered on the customer experience — as it still does. E-commerce naysayers predicted that the sights, smells and sounds of grocery stores would always trump whatever convenience e-commerce could offer.
Indeed, talk to shoppers about what they most appreciate about returning to physical stores, and chances are they’ll cite some sensory element — the ability to examine different produce items, for example, or the treat of sampling different cheeses in the deli section. Say what you will about the comfort of being able to shop from your couch, but these are experiences you simply can’t replicate with a mouse and a keyboard.
Therein lies the beauty of AR. It allows retailers to combine the best of both worlds. Shoppers enjoy the experiential touches of brick-and-mortar and the efficiency that they so prize in e-commerce. Rather than a purely analog experience in which a shopper guides herself through a store — perhaps with the assistance of a store associate — the AR-enabled store will offer an entirely new level of engaging product discovery.
Putting on a pair of AR glasses, a shopper could be guided to a cold cut of meat she hasn’t previously tried before, with an overlay of relevant information — e.g., its comparative cost, nutritional data, and so on — all before she’s given a sample to taste.
The technology also opens new monetization opportunities for retailers. For example, AR glasses can guide customers toward targeted advertisements based on where they are physically within the store and on their past shopping behavior.
Generating Customer-First Commerce
There’s no getting around it: The grocery market is growing increasingly competitive, and retailers will need to do all they can to differentiate themselves with winning in-store experiences. Delivery companies are raking in millions by the day, and flagship e-commerce provider Instacart now boasts a $39 billion valuation. Surviving and thriving in this rapidly evolving landscape will hinge on retailers’ success at achieving true customer centricity.
That means shoppers shouldn’t be expected to serve as free labor — traversing stores themselves, picking their products, standing in line, and packing their own bags. AR can help relieve some of the burdens currently placed on brick-and-mortar customers, delivering a positive, tailored, and engaging journey to each user. It can even support checkout-free stores. At some point, shoppers may be able to skip lines by scanning their items with their AR glasses and syncing with a payment app.
While today’s AR remains largely focused on industrial use cases, what starts in industry often makes its way into the consumer space. This was the case with computers, now ubiquitous features of our everyday lives. Given its wide range of benefits, AR is poised to make a similar breakthrough. That will mean a more intelligent shopping journey for customers and a world of new revenue opportunities for retailers — a true win-win.
Mendel Gniwisch is executive vice president, business development at stor.ai, the end-to-end digital commerce solution for grocers.
Related story: The E-Commerce Secret Weapon: AR and VR