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Insights

Augmented reality: Finally enriching the customer experience with more than simple gimmicks

With the right ecommerce platform, businesses have a real opportunity to enhance the customer journey with the clever adoption of augmented reality – and now’s the time to test it out.

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Augmented reality: Finally enriching the customer experience with more than simple gimmicks

There have been plenty of technologies that have stayed almost entirely unchanged since their inception, but have showcased various degrees of success. For every Bluetooth – which continues to connect devices wirelessly and with little fuss – there’s the Quick Response (QR) code, a barcode that still hasn’t quite caught on despite being around for 25 years.

Another technology that’s seen very much in the same way as the latter of these two is augmented reality (AR): the technology that superimposes a computer-generated layer over the top of a user's real-world view, effectively creating a composite of reality and imagery.

Historically, it’s been seen as more of a gimmick than anything else; despite regularly showing incredible potential – at least graphically speaking – it’s barely gone further than being a PR stunt, rarely (if ever) solving practical problems.

However, in the push to showcase technical mastery and uniqueness in the modern, digitally savvy marketplace, there are new and exciting examples of AR being used by ecommerce websites, developed to add genuine value to customers. While the core premise of AR has changed very little, its applications are more useful than ever before.

The lowdown on augmented reality

As a concept, augmented reality has been around in its most recognised form for around ten years. Despite high expectations, it’s yet to establish itself as a mainstream piece of technology – but that’s not to say it hasn’t been used to great effect on the big stage already.

The most commonly-viewed use of AR is found in televised sports: overlays are regularly placed over the field of play, such as first-down markers in American Football, or during post-match analysis in domestic football when reticles appear around players. However, these applications are prepared by others, and not the viewers themselves, creating a continued disconnect between users and virtual tech.

It wasn’t until 2016 that the best-known, most widely adopted use of AR came to mobile devices. Pokémon GO – a game that, three years on, shows no sign of dying out – was an almost inevitable step in Game Freak’s ubiquitous franchise, combining phones with AR technology to literally allow players to catch ‘em all. Real maps are overlaid with a Pokémon style; real-life buildings are turned into gyms; and real camera footage is used as the background to showdowns with the creatures themselves.

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With such a boom in popularity for the game (topping one billion downloads worldwide), it was unsurprising that brands got excited about the transferable potential of AR for their own businesses. In the world of social media, Snapchat and Facebook introduced AR through its camera functionality to overlay responsive filters to change the way users look in real time. Soon after, another tech giant led the charge, enabling retailers to spin the technology to their advantage.

Apple’s core role in modern AR

AR’s recent popularity has jumped largely due to new functionality provided by Apple. While it initially launched with iOS 11, Apple really promoted it as part of the release of iOS 12 last September, unleashing AR on anyone running an iPhone 6 or above – and playing into its long-established reputation as a creative force.

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With such a prominent push of the tech, online brands have taken this deployment as an excuse to explore new ways to connect with their customers, specifically in providing new ways for them to interact, discover and buy their products with AR. What’s more, some have really enhanced the online buying process, while also underlining the importance of having a forward-thinking, adaptive ecommerce web platform.

Corporate AR in practice

As is all too often the case, the rush to adopt new technologies is not taken as seriously as some as it should be. In fact, many ideas are gimmicky as soon as they’ve left the blocks.

One of these, rather ironically, is one that Apple itself touted in its iOS 12 release: IKEA Place. The app, which was the first of three to be promoted by the phone manufacturer, “lets you virtually place true-to-scale 3D models in your very own space”. In principle, it’s an absolutely incredible idea, but in reality its spacial awareness is just not quite there. A cursory glance at the reviews on the app’s page underlines that it’s fun but flawed.

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Meanwhile, WatchShop’s app allows users to see how timepieces look on their wrists, which is fine for novelty, but with even mid-priced watches, users aren’t going to see a floating, digital, passable-resolution mock-up as the removal of the final barrier in their path to purchase. Watches are special things, and items that buyers overwhelmingly want to try on, study and appreciate in person.

Herein lies an issue: as we’ve discussed already, sports fans are given a much greater breadth of knowledge and game insight with clever, complementary AR. Pokémon GO allowed people to literally do the very thing the franchise is known for with the help of clever, complementary AR. Businesses using AR for these more gimmicky reasons still often fail to understand the very things their customers want or need from AR technology: clever, complementary AR.

By containing AR within bespoke apps and not naturally embedding it into an ecommerce website, it not only creates a further barrier to it being used in the first place, but on a cultural level, it emphasises the gimmicky nature of the idea: AR is communicated as being a superfluous service.

As we discussed last year, retail apps are – for 99% of businesses, at least – a fruitless and ultimately expensive escapade. Businesses cannot rely on apps any longer; they need a platform that can support AR, on the customer’s terms, as a complementary service as they look to purchase.

Luckily, there are great examples of retailers doing just that.

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Cream of the crop

Ecommerce brands have been exploring how to offer those iPhone owners new ways to interact, discover, and buy their products with the help of AR. The service sits directly on their ecommerce websites at product level, for anyone with a modern iPhone running Safari.

The first example comes from Stork, which uses its site to allow parents to check the real-life size of their prams before buying them – an invaluable service if you need to check if it’ll fit in your car, given the AR allows you to see it in both its fully assembled and folded-up configurations.

Then there’s B&B Italia, which helps you check the size and style of a new sofa to see how it looks in your living room. It adopts a very similar ethic to IKEA Place but, while it may have the same teething problems as the Swedish giant’s app, this is on the website – no random app download is needed, removing another barrier to use and, of course, purchase.

Finally, Nomatic, a Kickstarter-funded start-up, proves that you don’t need years of retail experience to enhance it: on its site, you can explore the size and style of backpacks before buying to ensure they can carry everything you need, and look good to boot.

A long way to go yet – but it’s a start

Even with Apple’s inclusion of AR as standard, the technology is far from perfect and has its flaws, while its developers are still learning the true boundaries of their own imaginations. Nonetheless, it’s a major step in the right direction.

The challenge now is for retailers to put customer experience first and implement the technology to solve genuine consumer problems. Here at SHIFT, we prioritise our partners’ ability to integrate third-party solutions to meet these ever-evolving needs; it’s time that all retailers ensure their ecommerce platforms are as innovative as possible to meet these requirements, or at least test new ideas like these.

If you’re tempted to create your own AR experience, you can head to the Apple developer page on your phone and try out a range of objects for yourself. You never know, it may be the string your bow’s been looking for.

Insights

Could Amazon make packageless returns the new norm?

Amazon's initiative to remove packaging from its returns process may be the perfect way to cut costs, but it's also a great way to respond to consumer demand for less waste – and make one big-box retailer in particular more popular at an incredibly critical time. Will packageless returns become a new retail norm?

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Could Amazon make packageless returns the new norm?

Packaging is at the forefront of retail. The wasteful use of plastics and cardboard has forced many companies to make major changes to their practices, if only to serve their bottom line. Furthermore, a collective moral consciousness is increasingly gripping the world regarding climate change and renewable practices.

It’s great news to hear, then, that Amazon – itself the creator of thousands of tons of packaging each week – is beginning to cut down on its use through its new returns process.

How it works

Amazon’s new service is simple and uses technology that’s been around for years, making it a surprise that it’s taken this long to roll out. By getting hold of a QR code from the Amazon Return Center website and taking it with them, shoppers can simply hand packages to store staff without a label or external box – the product boxes, of course, need to be used. From here, staff pack and ship the product back to the warehouse for free.

Explaining its motives, the company explained: “We understand that finding a box and tape and printing a label for a return can still be a hassle. Now, most Amazon returns are easier than ever with no box required.”

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On a brand level, the idea has been made a standard: the service is available at a number of stores run by Whole Foods Markets – itself a subsidiary of Amazon since 2017 – alongside every one of Amazon’s physical stores (Amazon Books and Amazon 4-star). This isn’t exactly a huge portfolio of real estate – there are under 20 Amazon Books and just four 4-stars – but it more than makes up for it with its wider affiliates.

A further 5,000 or so UPS stores are also in on the plan, but the most interesting partnership is undoubtedly with Kohl’s.

Rescuing relevance from the jaws of defeat

For a big-box retailer like Kohl’s, it’s a coup. The department store chain is partnering with Amazon in 1,150 locations across the US, following a limited trial run in 100 stores. Each one operates a separate line at the customer service area just for Amazon returns, from which they'll pack, label and ship your return without charge.

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Massive competitors like Macy’s, JCPenney and Sears have been steadily winding up their portfolio of stores; Kohl’s itself has withdrawn from a handful of mall locations. However, it’s still weathering the storm and maintains a major presence: according to its CEO Michelle Gass, “80% of America lives within ten miles of a Kohl’s”.

The convenience and certainty of the Amazon returns process is guaranteed for a huge chunk of US shoppers. Rather than fighting the online giant, it’s leveraging its assets.

Most Kohl’s stores already offer free parking, and extra convenience is being afforded to anyone returning Amazon packages with designated parking spots close to the store entrance. It’s for obvious reasons, as Gass explained: “This new service is another example of how Kohl's is delivering innovation to drive traffic to our stores and bring more relevance to our customers.”

With its “adapt or die” mentality, Kohl’s is both remaining competitive and giving a real boost to Amazon’s initiative, which has every reason to become the new norm in business.

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What’s driving demand for packageless returns?

Breaking Amazon’s packageless returns concept down, it’s hard to find a criticism – it fulfils so many demands across all levels.

Meeting customer expectations

Amazon’s no stranger to delivering what customers want – it wouldn’t be where it was without this focus. Yet once again, it’s proving how many omnichannel businesses in the UK are failing to meet modern consumer demand.

As we found in last year’s Retail Experience Score 100, 73 of our selected 100 retailers didn’t offer free postal, collection or drop-off returns, despite the fact that 76% of respondents to a poll in our State of Retail Report 2019 believe that postal returns should be free.

Meanwhile, a shocking 14% of our RES 100 retailers didn’t offer the opportunity for their own online-bought products to be returned in store – a shocking disconnect between online and offline channels, and one that only makes high-street locations more irrelevant and inflexible.

Responding to moral concerns

Consumers are attracted to businesses that demonstrate a commitment to the environment. According to a recent poll by Dotcom Distribution, 80% of respondents claimed to be “bothered by excess and wasteful packaging”, and a further 38% “said they were extremely bothered by it”.

What’s more, it’s growing increasingly important with younger demographics. In the same survey, 62% of all shoppers “said they prefer to purchase from brands that use sustainable shipping materials”, and for those between the ages of 18 and 29, this sentiment rose was 74%.

By providing an opportunity like packageless returns, Amazon and like-minded competitors are adding another string to their promotional bows, and for all the right reasons.

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Simple business

Kohl’s’ attempt to reverse the fortunes of massive losses to department stores is admirable, with footfall certain to rise with the certainty and convenience guaranteed by the partnership. According to the same Dotcom poll, 84% of shoppers would be more likely to buy online if they could return or exchange unwanted items in store – 10% up on the response last year (74%).

These consumers, who may simply visit Kohl’s to return something, are immediately a captive audience for carefully curated shop floor. The packageless element removes yet another boundary and expense to the shopper. It’s certainly something that the likes of Debenhams, Marks & Spencer and John Lewis could stand to benefit from in the UK.

Two steps forward, one step back

There’s no doubt that this initiative is a fantastic one, responding to the requirements and beliefs of countless modern shoppers.

However, Amazon is far from perfect; rather ironically, the packageless returns showcased in the US is yet to cross the Atlantic, and in the meantime, Amazon is instead causing controversy with its UK packaging. The white plastic envelopes regularly used to deliver smaller purchases or clothing are “not widely recycled” in Britain, despite regularly being assumed as such by shoppers.

It may take time for Amazon to get its act together beyond the US, but it’s a start – and there’s no doubt that other retailers will support or mimic the concept – otherwise it’s just another reason for them to fall behind the long-established competition.