Augmented reality, a term which only a few years ago drew blank looks amongst the marketing fraternity, is now well established in the luxury marketer’s lexicon.
A number of high profile applications has brought this emerging technology fully into the limelight. And those applications have fallen into 2 broad categories – those designed to offer entertainment and buzz and those designed to offer genuine utility.
A prime example of AR as a buzz generator was the Hugo Boss Blackjack promotion. Owners of a ‘Blackjack’ game card, distributed via Shortlist and Stylist, were enticed to visit the Hugo Boss store in Sloane Square, use their game card to trigger video of catwalk shows via a webcam in the store window and play a game of virtual BlackJack instore to win up to £250 of Hugo Boss gift vouchers.
This pioneering execution was soon followed by others, particularly publishers, who aimed to jump on the AR bandwagon whilst it was still cutting edge and newsworthy. Both Wallpaper and Grazia released augmented reality editions where bands played, catwalk shows took place and 2 dimensional pictures of art become 3D all within the pages of the magazine.
However, we’d always argued that using AR for buzz would have a limited shelf life, particularly as the technology became more familiar to consumers and the novelty wore off. The route to sustained success was applications that offered genuine utility and enhanced the customer journey.
The solution developed for Tissot watches – where consumers were able to view the 3D representation of a number of watches in the Tissot range actually on their wrist via their webcam or via an installation in Selfridges shop window – was a prime example of AR being used in an attempt to add value within the customer journey. The Tissot app was designed by ‘Augmented Retail’ specialists, Holition, a joint venture between 3D image company Inition and the UK jeweller Holts Lapidary. Holition has gone onto develop similar applications for other prestigious luxury brands such as Boucheron and Tag Heuer.
But does AR genuinely offer value to the consumers of luxury or is it just an engaging sideshow which will fade away with time?
Holition would point to the success of the solutions they’ve developed so far as an indicator of AR’s potential. Tissot saw an 83% increase in sales as a result of its AR windows in Selfridges while Boucheron is rumoured to have seen a 50% increase in website traffic. And there do seem to be some genuine reasons to believe that AR is here to stay.
For example, for cash rich, time poor consumers AR offers the opportunity to try on luxury items – be they watches, jewellery or clothes – wherever and whenever they like without the need to worry about retail locations or opening hours. As such, AR could increase desire, facilitate choice and prompt a retail visit to make a purchase.
But the assumption that moving consumers along a purchase funnel that ends in a retail store is all that AR can achieve is likely to be a mistaken one. AR may be able to enhance the online experience to such a degree that it prompts an online purchase.
As Jonathan Chippindale, founder and CEO of Holition explains:
‘So often jewellery websites do not give a real indication of proportion or size, so it’s a great way to try things on. There’s also more of an emotional connection with consumers online. They get to experience the brand in a deeper way in an environment outside the store format.’
And there is a growing segment of affluents prepared to purchase even high ticket items online. As Martin Raymond of trends consultancy The Future Laboratory explains:
‘High Net Worths under 40 are among the fastest and earliest adopters of technology. There’s been an assumption that luxury purchasers need to touch and feel things to buy them. But evidence shows that this group already know what they want. They like to compare and contrast online and will buy straight away.’
AR may help luxury brands to unlock the potential of this group.
In fact, for some groups of purchasers, the store experience can get in the way. New to luxury consumers may be intimated by the thought of walking into a luxury store. AR offers this group the ability to educate themselves about the brand and try on its products without the pressures of a premium retail environment.
But to realise its full potential, AR needs to move on and become more of a premium experience itself. Trying on virtual jewellery relies on the consumer cutting out cardboard ‘rings’ which the AR application recognises and replaces with the virtual ring when viewed on the user’s webcam. This approach ‘will soon be a relic’ ,according to Jonathan at Holition, who’s company is developing recognition technology to react directly to the face and body.
Future applications will become much more 3D too. AR in the clothing field has been clunkily rendered at best to date – with 2D ‘digital cutouts’ being superimposed over the wearer via their webcam. In future, AR fashion apps will be much more 3D.
‘You’ll be able to try something on and for it to look like you are actually wearing it, with realistic fabrics – cotton that looks like cotton, silk that shines and shimmers,’ explains Jonathan at Holition.
In fact, companies like Holition realise that the secret to true virtual retail is to engage the other senses too. It The technology is already available for the consumer to ‘feel the weight’ of what they’re trying on and even to hear the movement of the fabric.
As luxury consumers become more familiar with AR, it’s ability to excite and generate word of mouth will fade. Its future lies in offering genuine utility – to educate, to allow exploration, to offer choice and to facilitate purchase. As long as AR can successfully move along this path, then its future as an integral part of the luxury retail experience looks assured.