AR, or augmented reality, has been making waves the past few years. You can’t mention AR without mentioning Pokemon Go, the AR-driven app that exploded in popularity across the globe. But augmented reality, while a lot of fun, can also play many practical purposes.

One of the latest uses of AR is in advertisements for retail items. Facebook recently introduced new augmented reality ads that let users “try on” various items before buying. The idea, no doubt, is to make online shopping even easier by letting users see how items look on their face or body prior to making a final purchase.

The AR Facebook ads function just like any other ad, appearing within a users news feed as they scroll. But unlike a basic Facebook ad, the AR ad includes text that says “click here to try on.” When a user clicks, they transition to their own camera view, with the selected item or product in the frame. Michael Kors was the first fashion brand to try out the new feature, allowing Facebook users to try on a pair of sunglasses virtually. Users could then have choices to buy the product, or could take a photo and share with their friends or within their Facebook story. This makes shopping for clothes online a bit more interactive, certainly, as shoppers can get their friends’ approval on their cute new sunnies.

With this kind of technology beginning to make waves, what does it mean for the future of shopping? Will AR do away with the need to have physical changing rooms? Will we even need to shop for clothes offline anymore?

AR change room
AR could offer the convenience of ‘trying on’ clothes without actually needing to try them on.

The Possibilities of AR + the Retail World

It’s easy to imagine that most companies would willingly embrace AR capabilities. After all, if the technology is available, why not allow customers to try before they buy? Ideally, this would lead to an increase in sales for retail brands.

Not all brands are jumping in just yet, but a few are already eager to test the waters. Michael Kors was the first to give the AR Facebook ads a go, and it seems the company is embracing the potential of AR. Kors said, “We see augmented reality as an emerging and important part of our customer-centric mobile strategy. We know our customer is highly visual, and we are always looking for ways to deliver experiences that are not only unexpected but relevant, personalized and useful to her in her shopping journey.”

Other companies planning to experiment with Facebook’s AR ads include Wayfair, Sephora, Bobbi Brown, Nyx Professional Makeup, and Pottery Barn.

The convenience of AR in ads makes a lot of sense for brands. If users don’t have to navigate away from the browser they’re using, and don’t have to download an external app, it’s quick and easy for them to virtually try on the items. Facebook isn’t the first to employ this method. Earlier this year, COVERGIRL unveiled the “first full look live mobile-web try on experience.” Straight from the COVERGIRL website, shoppers could try on various full-face beauty looks. Instead of just sampling one product, the brand decided to showcase collections of looks that work well in tandem. This means that a shopper can see how her face looks using several products that are best used together. She can then follow the links to instantly purchase the full collection.

Gap is also a company that has taken advantage of the trend. Last year, they introduced a virtual fitting room app that would allow users to try on clothes using a digital avatar. Shoppers would input their body measurements to create an accurate avatar. While using an avatar isn’t quite the same as a live AR camera experience using the customer’s own face and body, it was a big step forward.

Yet the trend seems to be emerging fairly slowly; only two-thirds of companies are using any type of AR. Those retail businesses who are using AR have likely recognised the possibilities and benefits:

No Substitute for the In-Person Shopping Experience

Despite the positive aspects of AR in the world of retail, it seems unlikely that augmented reality will ever fully replace the dressing room. There are many reasons for this.

First, a great many consumers still enjoy the in-person experience of shopping for needed items. This is especially true with products that are highly personalised such as clothing. Clothing is not just about the look of an outfit, but includes the feel, the fit, the material, the colour, and more. It could be argued that clothing is also mostly about the wearer---meaning it is necessary to physically try on an item to know if it’s right for you. Although AR might help shoppers become more interested in an item, for a lot of people, they’ll still rely primarily on their physical interaction and experience with the product before making a final decision.

AR change room
There’s something about shopping that AR can never replace.

The second issue with AR is the way it doesn’t adhere to the advertising we expect or have grown accustomed to. AR could also do away with traditional advertising methods, many of which have been enormously effective. How many times have you been drawn to a clothing item because of how it looked on the model? Or have you ever purchased a car because the advertisement showcased an enviable lifestyle? There’s an aspect of shopping that is aspirational---we choose items because we feel that they’ll give us the model’s confidence, make us more attractive, or help us to better emulate a certain coveted lifestyle. These ideas may be simple fantasies, but psychologically, it is exactly this which drives us to make a great deal of our purchases. This is especially true with luxury brands. Dispensing with this aspirational advertising could be problematic for retailers.

Finally, do users actually look good when using AR?

AR technology is still improving, but it’s not perfect yet. Despite the remarkable abilities of the technology, it’s not necessarily something that shows users at their very best. If AR is not “flattering” to shoppers, it may backfire on retailers, resulting in fewer purchases. For it to be its most effectual, the technology will need to be honed to make users look their best, while still displaying a realistic appearance.

How AR Could Help Fashion Brands Sell More Items

AR may not mean that retailers are shutting down their changing rooms, but it’s definitely going to be a part of the commerce experience going forward. To be most effective, perhaps retailers should consider combining augmented reality with in-store experiences. When companies integrate fun, creative technology into the expected shopping experience, the results can be impressive. This strategy has already proven highly successful in a number of instances.

Nearly a decade ago, shoe retailer Airwalk created the world’s first invisible” pop-up shop. The company was promoting a limited-edition re-release of one of their popular shoe models, and the pop-up store was set to coincide with this. On the appointed day, shoppers could download the app, and, using geolocation and AR, discover the location of the invisible pop-up shop. They could see and order these special shoes via a secret code received through the app. This initiative had great results for Airwalk: $5 million in earned media, plus a record-breaking weekend for their eCommerce store.

Well-known retailer Zara is also taking advantage of AR in its store locations. Since April, 120 of their worldwide locations are featuring AR displays. These enable customers to engage with their mobile phones. By holding their device up to a sensor either inside the store or in its windows, customers will see a virtual model appear, wearing the item. The user can then instantly buy the chosen look if they so choose. This certainly beats the traditional mannequin!

Ultimately, it seems that the savviest brands will learn how to combine the incredible capabilities of AR technology with the trusted, familiar shopping experience. If brands can marry these two successfully, it’s likely that AR just will make their sales skyrocket.

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