A 3D render of a modern generic smart phone screen emanating small pixels at random that build up to form and illuminate the word Augmented Reality

AR offers a viable solution for contactless shopping. Source: Shutterstock

Is Augmented Reality the future of contact-free shopping?

  • COVID-19 has caused a surge in demand for contact-free shopping options – and augmented reality is perfectly positioned to occupy that space
  • Being used across retail sectors including home furnishings, fashion, and cosmetics

It’s been several years now that brands and stores started imagining augmented reality (AR) as a logical extension to how retail experiences are marketed, but it took until recently for the power of the tool to really catch on with retailers.

Online and offline, both e-commerce platforms and traditional brick-and-mortar stores have been experimenting with AR to provide immersive experiential shopping journeys. American department store chain Macy’s leaned on AR when it wanted to introduce a touch-free solution for costumers to virtually “test out” its furniture, and Kohl’s supplemented its holiday campaign with an AR-powered mobile app, where users could sample the in-store experience from their homes.

Not to be outdone, brands have been looking into unique applications of AR that can be customized to suit their product voices. Cosmetic brands like L’Oréal, MAC and Avon have introduced “virtual try-on” sessions, where consumers can digitally “apply” beauty and skincare products onto videos and photos of themselves, even on live videos.

The functionality works similarly to the AR lenses and filters that we have become accustomed to seeing on social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. Use cases keep picking up, and the COVID-19 pandemic further served to draw attention to AR and mixed reality applications, drawn by the necessity for contact-free alternatives that still showcased their brand messages and product lineups.

With the pandemic’s effects expected to be felt for the rest of the year, it is very likely that we will see AR-powered online and in-store customer experiences ramping up even further — in potentially new and surprising ways. The potential is so palpable that in 2019, Gartner was already predicting 100 million consumers to shop in AR by this year, and Gartner’s principal research analyst Hanna Karki called the impact of the technology on the retail sector as “transformative”.

E-commerce sites have likewise been leveraging AR to boost both marketing efforts and online conversions, with AR’s 3D-based, interactive nature being seen as a critical brand engagement feature now that tactile, in-person retail needs to be limited.

Sometimes in tandem with engaging social commerce influencers and live streaming product launches, apparel and footwear makers are also collaborating with e-commerce platforms to enable ‘virtual try-ons’ of their products online.

In China, popular sportswear e-retailer JD.com will be joining Gucci in offering a mobile AR feature that can measure a user’s shoe size via a smartphone equipped with a ToF (Time-of-Flight) distance measuring camera, which can currently be used to virtually test over 1,000 sneakers on JD.com.

Usually, shoe purchases (like clothes) would be considered “high touch” as customers would generally want to try them on before sealing the purchase– but these are not usual times, and “zero-touch” retail is a trending topic now globally, with 68% of retailers saying they are making investments into experiential retail for 2020.

Statista is estimating that 51% of total revenue in the footwear market will be generated through online sales by 2020, and the high penetration of experienced mobile users in China plus the popularity of JD’s platform will likely stimulate strong tests of the AR feature that might lead to online sales conversions.