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How Virtual & Augmented Reality Will Reshape Retail & Help Consumers Make Better Informed Buying Decisions

The convenience of online shopping technology is hard to beat, but sometimes the end result, isn’t exactly what the customer expected.

Wouldn’t it be easier if shoppers could make better-informed buying decisions, reducing the need for time consuming and costly product returns or refunds?

The try-before-you-buy experience

The travel industry has led the way in giving consumers a virtual try-before-you-buy experience.

Holidaymakers planning their annual escape want to be able to get a glimpse of the location and accommodation they are thinking of visiting, for example.

So, resorts and hotels have produced 360-degree videos and created Virtual Reality (VR) experiences to give travellers a taste of their destination.

And the technology has huge potential to help overcome consumer uncertainty after the coronavirus pandemic and drive the recovery of the travel sector.

Johanna Bonhill-Smith, Travel & Tourism analyst at data analytics and consulting company GlobalData, said: “Some operators were already using VR pre-COVID-19 to offer travellers an insight into their holiday destination, but the ‘try-before-you-buy’ concept may become increasingly important within the booking process due to the impacts created by the coronavirus.

“A virtual experience beforehand may generate wanderlust, thus raising the appeal of international travel.

“Immersive, memorable and enticing experiences that VR can offer will help to ease consumer doubt – acting as another factor that can increase future travel demand.”

Best of both worlds?

Socially-distanced shoppers have been left with a quandary; they no longer feel comfortable mixing with crowds of people in stores, but they still want to be able to experience the products they are purchasing.

Not only can these technologies support sales, they can also help consumers get to know the product they are purchasing better before they buy.

That can also help overcome a perennial problem in online retail – dealing with high rates of product returns, which drags on working capital.

In a survey by Lloyds Bank, more than half (54%) of online retailers said the number of returns they received caused issues with working capital1.

While 47% said fewer than a fifth of sales were returned, 14% reported that more than half of all items were sent back.

Point of no return

Japanese retailer ZOZOTOWN has led the field in the fashion sector, launching the ZOZOMAT system, which uses a free printed mat that customers stand on before using a smartphone app to scan their feet.

The system creates a virtual 3D model of their feet and is designed to help customers choose shoes that fit without having to visit a store and try them on.

And ZOZOTOWN says it has cut shoe returns by around a third.

ZOZOTOWN had previously launched the ZOZOSUIT – a skin-tight black spandex bodysuit covered in white dots which the user wears while scanning their body with a smartphone.

They could then upload their measurements to ensure they are buying the right size clothing for them and even order bespoke items.

The body measuring technology had teething problems when it was first launched in 2018, but now a new, more accurate version is set to hit the market in 2021.

Keeping it real

Another trend to watch for 2021 is more Augmented Reality (AR) in ecommerce and retail, which has applications in sectors from furniture and automotive to fashion and cosmetics.

Want to know if that sofa will fit in your front room and how it will look with your wallpaper?

Brands including IKEA and John Lewis have developed AR apps that allow customers to virtually place pieces of furniture in their home.

The apps use the smartphone’s camera to scan a room and measure its dimensions, creating an accurate 3D model.

Users can then place different items in the room to view them from different angles and see what they would look like in their home in real life creating a shift in consumer behaviour.

Or how about choosing a new colour for your kitchen walls?

Instead of plastering your walls with different paint samples, augmented reality apps including the Dulux Visualizer enable you to virtually redecorate, showing how a room would look in different shades in real time.

Users can photograph or video what they see on screen and share it with friends too.

The app, which has had more than half a million downloads, will even recommend complementary colours for woodwork, for example, to help complete the look, and you can order paint for home delivery through the app too.

And car brands from Skoda to Porsche have developed apps or web-based experiences that allow you to choose the colour of your car, see what it looks like parked on your driveway and even take it for a virtual test drive.

Investing in experiences

It‘s easy to see the potential of what’s been dubbed Augmented Shopping (AS): brands can engage with customers by providing digital experiences that allow them to virtually interact with their products and services in a far more detailed and intuitive way than just looking at a listing on a website.

And for shoppers it takes a lot of the guesswork out of the online shopping experience, so fewer returns are needed.

But how much does an app with this kind of online shopping technology cost?

Depending on its complexity, an AS app can cost from around £20,000 to more than £180,000 develop, and the process can take many months.

Retailers must then also fund the ongoing cost of running the app, including maintenance, updates and server costs.

A widely-used rule of thumb is that this will cost around 20% of the initial development cost every year.

However, these costs will undoubtedly come down going forward, opening up this kind of technology to even more brands and retailers.

And developments in consumer technology will also support increasingly sophisticated functionality – the latest iPhone models come with extra sensors designed to support even more realistic VR and AR experiences.

So, while many retailers have been trying out these technologies for a few years now, the experiences they can offer will only improve.

It’s exciting to imagine how the sector will continue to explore the creative potential they hold.

Find out more about Brother’s business solutions for retailers.


1. Lloyds Bank: 'Business in Britain: Retail – A survey of key sector options, trends and insights' (PDF)

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