Augmented and virtual reality are more than just the latest gaming fads. Both have applications across a wide range of industrial and professional environments, mainly due to their ability to fundamentally alter the way we learn, communicate and interact with an increasingly digitized world.
But how, exactly, are they suited to perhaps the most basic need of the modern economy: making a sale? It turns out that AR/VR has a lot to offer not only in developing products and services and getting them to market, but in closing the deal as well.
AR/VR in Retail: Strategy Is Essential
The retail industry, in fact, is already steeped in AR and VR. A key element of modern sales, whether it is for a house, a car or a new pair of shoes, is to get the customer to imagine himself or herself owning and enjoying the product. That task is much easier, and far more effective, if you can engage sight, sound and other senses to literally show them what the world looks like once they are in possession of whatever you are trying to sell. (Think you know about VR? Check out 5 Common Myths About Virtual Reality — And Why They Aren’t True.)
Online retailers, in fact, already utilize these techniques to show shoppers what they would look like in a new dress or sporting a new hairstyle, and it is widely expected that these tools will infiltrate brick and mortar stores as well. But as Harvard’s Darrell Rigby, Mikey Vu and Asit Goel point out, just because it is new does not mean it is right for all situations. The recent collapse of Blippar, which attempted to create AR apps for consumer goods as varied as hamburgers and gardening supplies, shows that the road to virtual nirvana in the storefront is not paved with gold. This is part of the reason why Forrester has detected a distinct pullback in venture funding for AR in recent years.
Still, the idea that technology can be used to entice buyers remains strong, particularly when the goods and/or services become more complex. In business-to-business settings, for example, AR is finding its way into product presentations, trade show exhibitions and data visualizations of advanced systems and concepts. Denis Kostusev, vice president of business development at software firm Itransition, notes that AR is a great way to make you stand out from the crowd and it allows you to engage with remote clients much more effectively than simple photos, graphics and text.
“When you deal with business to business (B2B) sales, all properties of your product or service must persuade the potential client that it will increase their company’s profit,” he said. “There should also be something impressive in your offer that makes it stand out. This is where AR can enter the stage and become a handy sales and client engagement tool that you can create with the help of your company’s developers.”
If you are going to utilize AR or VR, however, make sure you employ the latest technologies, including artificial intelligence, to provide the highest-quality presentation as possible. Immersive experiences are already entering the mainstream, so it won’t help if your AR pitch to top business clients is barely more impressive than Pokémon GO.
It is also important to note that AR and VR do not necessarily require big, clunky headsets and advanced pupil-tracking interfaces. Instead, says Chain Store Age’s Greg Brunnick, take a look at how companies like Google and Apple are leveraging AR tools like computer vision and sensor fusion to enable in-store mapping and product locators, both of which can be a godsend to people who need just one item from a big box store. As well, some retailers are starting to employ smart mirrors that allow shoppers to try out new looks without having to change clothes. Still others are experimenting with laser projection technologies to turn otherwise wasted floor space in dazzling 3D displays.
Impressive as all this sounds, is there any indication that it will translate into higher sales? There is little question that it will become a common facet of the shopping experience before too long, but its effect as a revenue enhancer is still unclear. According to Gartner, nearly half of all retailers expect to have some form of AR or VR in place as early as 2020, which should put it in front of upwards of 100 million people. The technology’s full potential, however, probably won’t come into focus until 5G mobile networking hits critical mass later in the decade, providing the foundation for fully immersive environments and other advanced applications. Gartner also notes that the combination of AR/VR and 5G will not only impact the sales experience, but the entire product or service lifecycle, from development and supply chain to marketing and delivery. (For more on 5G, see All Your Questions About 5G — Answered.)
The true test of AR as a sales tool, of course, will be customer satisfaction. Today’s buyers, most of them anyway, are already savvy to the many tricks that sellers use to make their products seem much more appealing than they really are — everything from enhanced graphics and photography to highly dubious customer testimonials. But it is unclear how people will react when the new sweater they just purchased does not look quite as good, or fit quite as well, as the AR representation led them to believe.
If AR is to truly revolutionize the shopping experience, retailers would do well to depart from current practices in which media continually skirts the fine line between enticement and deception, and adopt a new mindset in which technology focuses on finding the right product at the right time and at the right cost.