Why Augmented Reality is The Future of Ecommerce


Ecommerce has always had one major drawback.

Whatever it is you’re buying, whether it be clothes, furniture, or a piece of art, you never really get an idea of what it will actually look until it’s physically on or in front of you.

And so, many shoppers stay teetering on the fence, wondering whether a product is right for them or not, maybe following through with the purchase, and probably taking advantage of the generous return policy.

It’s one of the reasons why big high street retailers are still hanging onto their share of the market. A swathe of consumers not trusting an image on a tiny screen to show them what a product is like or sulking after too many poor experiences online.

Augmented Reality (AR) plans to change all this.

The technology is proving to be the missing link for undecided and ecommerce-wary shoppers, allowing them to try before they buy and get all the added benefits of the in-store shopping experience, without moving from their couch.

One study found that 35 percent of consumers would shop more online if they could interact with products virtually. Another study showed that 40 percent of consumers would be willing to spend more on a product if it offered an AR experience.

These two figures alone are a strong indication that ecommerce will play a large part in fuelling the growth of the AR product market to its forecast of £125 billion by 2024.

As expected, companies like Amazon, Ikea, and Apple are already leading the way, investing heavily in developing AR devices and applications and planning to deliver seamless AR experiences, if they aren’t already.

But with a relatively low cost to entry, AR isn’t just a runaway technology that will only benefit the big players. Small and mid-sized ecommerce companies also have as much to benefit from AR — especially if they get their foot in the door early.

Getting your business and products to literally stand out

With the value of the market set to nearly double in the next six years, it won’t be long before AR technology will be as ubiquitous as smartphones and the internet itself.

It is true that, with AR being more like the birth of a whole new reality than an evolution of an existing one, the only limits to its possibilities are your creativeness and technical capabilities. But those who dive into the arena sooner rather than later will still make the biggest splash.

This is how Ikea has managed to remain successful. Back in 2013, they created the AR catalog app that allows customers to visualise how furniture looks and fits in their homes. All they need is to do is download the app to their smartphone or tablet, take a photo of a room, and choose a product to envision in situ.

It was a small taste of the full possibilities of AR. But it was a success, and this September the company launched a follow-up product: the ‘Ikea Place’ app.

Ikea Place, one of the first apps to be built using Apple’s ARKit, allows customers to actually place virtual pieces of furniture in their living rooms, kitchens, or wherever they want. Using the app, customers can choose from 2000 of the company’s offerings, designing whole rooms and envisioning how they would appear even down to exact details such as sizes, textures, and shadows.

Even though Ikea is already the world’s largest furniture retailer, they’re not a tech company. And so, by jumping on the AR bandwagon early, they’re future-proofing their position and ensuring they aren’t easily knocked off by younger, tech-first companies like Wayfair.

Infinite and immediate customisation

Consumers are hungry for more convenient and personalised services — whether it’s same-hour delivery, personal clothing recommendations, or fully customisable shoes. AR has the potential to deliver both like never before.

We can see this with Ikea but even they’re just scratching the surface. When the functionality of AR merges with AI and big data, interacting with virtual objects in your home will be much like shopping on Google or Amazon. Things like product suggestions, virtual assistance, styling advice — all tailored to your preferences and browsing history — will be fully integrated within the service. Offering an experience that is lightyears beyond both that of shopping online or in store.

A great example of this is the makeup company Sephora and their augmented ‘Visual Artist’ service. Whereas customers would normally go in store to have a makeup artist paint their face, Sephora’s Visual Artist can scan a customer’s face and let them try on different looks from their home.

Users can instantly switch between lip colours, eyeshadows, and false eyelashes — even following tutorials that are overlaid on their face and tailored to their facial characteristics. The app has its flaws, but when compared to having passers-by stare at you in a cosmetic store or watching a YouTube video and making a mess of yourself, there’s no comparison.

Even more can be said for clothes shopping. Rather than spending your afternoon in the dressing room of a department store or getting your partner to help measure your inseam, online clothes retailers like Topshop and Asos are experimenting with a virtual avatar alternative.

By simply providing a few measurements and a photo, virtual avatars allow shoppers to see how an item of clothing will fit their exact measurements. One service called TriMirror even enables you to see how loose or tight something will be in certain areas with their tension heat maps. Virtual avatars also bring personalised suggestions and thousands of items of clothing to the dressing room, for quick, limitless, and pain-free customisation.

Unlike technologies like virtual reality, AR works on a device that the vast majority of people already own. And so, in the search for an ever more convenient and personal way to shop, AR will proliferate. Picking up momentum as ecommerce retailers fight for a way to make themselves stand out from the crowd, and becoming a commonplace technology as consumers start demanding nothing less than the ultimate, augmented shopping experience.

Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Find him on Medium exploring remote working, technology, spirituality, meditation, and everything in between.