Driving customer engagement with AR, VR

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Driving customer engagement with AR, VR

By Deena M. Amato-McCoy - 03/07/2018

The adoption of AR and VR technologies is giving retailers new and creative ways to step up their engagement game. AR is getting most of the attention, especially from a customer-facing perspective, but retailers should not discount the value of VR, the more immersive of the two.

The key to successfully using the technologies is to evaluate how to leverage each solution as a means of improving the customer experience and driving engagement. Here are some suggestions:

Limit usage to flagship stores. While retailers are eager to use AR to engage shoppers, keeping the technology’s reputation “special” is key. That said, it is a great way to highlight flagship and concept stores, according to industry experts.

“There isn’t a strong enough business case yet to roll out these tools across an entire chain,” said Michael Witty, director of retail digital practice for global technology research and advisory firm, Information Services Group. “These tools add to the customer experience, making them the perfect fit for flagship and concept stores.”

Starbucks Corp.’s new Reserve Roastery in Shanghai features the coffee giant’s first AR experience, which is accessible through a custom-designed web-app platform.

When customers point their mobile devices at key features around the 30,000-sq.-ft. store, information about Starbucks’ bean-to-cup story, its equipment and brewing methods pop up on their screens.   

As they wander through the space, customers can also unlock virtual “badges” that can earn them a custom Roastery filter to share on social media. (The Shanghai Roastery’s digital experience is designed by Starbucks and powered by Alibaba Group’s scene-recognition technology.)

Apply solutions to specific merchandise sets. The quickest way to kill excitement around AR is to link it to an entire product portfolio. Instead, link the solution to high-volume merchandise as a means of improving marketing and usage — and driving sales.

“You need to limit usage to high-volume or top-selling merchandise,” Witty said. “To apply it to an entire product portfolio will diminish returns.”

Online retailer Boxed, which sells bulk groceries, household products and other items, recently introduced AR View, an AR-based solution that lets shoppers compare sizes of merchandise against other retail products, the dimensions of their pantry and other specifications. The application is limited to 30 of its best-selling products, including toilet paper and food snacks.

Bolster online service offerings. To take advantage of rising online sales, retailers need to offer solutions that mimic in-store experiences — especially those assisted by knowledgeable store associates. AR tools can create “a more real experience for the shopper” and bolster engagement.

“Whether an AR solution can help shoppers position virtual furniture in the exact dimensions of their home, or deliver the characteristics of merchandise, these are tangible ways for consumers to get information needed to make an educated purchase online — without the assistance of a store associate,” Witty said.

Revamp in-store demonstrations. While some retailers are putting VR to work in simulation settings internally — from training and assortment planning to applying planograms — the technology also holds value from a customer-facing perspective. VR could revamp in-store demonstrations — without having to invest in labor, in-store real estate or tie up sellable merchandise.

Lowe’s Cos. has a VR-based DIY skills training clinic, “Holoroom How To.” While wearing a VR headset and holding a haptic-based controller in each hand, shoppers become immersed in a DIY project — such as tiling a shower — and are given step-by-step instructions to complete the task. From mixing the mortar to laying the pattern, the simulation — along with haptic feedback, such as feeling the vibration of a drill through the controller — walks the user through each step of the process.

“Potentially reusable components, such as the same set of VR scripts, is more cost-effective than creating — and reshooting — videos,” Witty explained. “The key is not to embrace VR or AR because they are just bright, shiny objects. Then these services become a distraction. The right deployment must be based on how it can best engage the customer throughout the engagement cycle.”