In North America, shoppers are increasingly turning to online orders to buy their products.
National postal services have seen a significant uptick in parcel volumes; so many that the number matches those sent during the Christmas surge — minus the wrapping paper. But although the pandemic has acted as a catalyst for online shopping, it’s part of a continuing trend.
The online sector has slowly been eating up the percentage of sales from retail stores. Virtual shopping’s total share of the global market has doubled between 2015 and 2019, with the U.S. Department of Commerce reporting that online retail sales overtook general merchandise stores in the country for the first time in February 2019.
As customers have turned to their web browsers, shop vacancies are on the rise around the world, with big brands deserting even New York’s Fifth Avenue.
“Within the next five years, I think we’re going to see that having AR and 3D on your dot-com and beyond will be mandatory.”
The high street has been forced into a period of transformation. Now, forward-thinking companies are finding ways to adapt.
New realities in retail
In 2019, Charles Bergh, the CEO of Levi’s, proclaimed that stock sizes for clothes would be gone within a decade. Body scanning and made-to-order items would replace the letters and numbers found on the labels of clothes, and products would no longer be found by scrolling through images or browsing shop floors. Instead, customers would select their products — a pair of shoes, a new coffee table, a snapback hat — and customize it to their own specifications. These clothes or items would be tried on or placed within a virtual scan of their room, all without leaving the couch.
Using 3D modeling and augmented reality (AR) — a technology that places computer-generated images onto the real world — Bergh’s vision is already possible.
One of the first sectors to take advantage of the nascent technology was the furniture industry. Leading retailers like Wayfair and IKEA invested early into 3D and AR, allowing customers to physically visualize their products inside their spaces. For Shrenik Sadalgi, the director of Research and Development at Wayfair Next — the arm of the furniture giant that uses technology to make shopping more seamless — adding the two technologies to its sales arsenal was an obvious choice for the company.
Wayfair’s customers can take advantage of two AR experiences. The first, View in Room 3D, lets users place an accurately sized piece of furniture into their room, twist and move it in the space, and even walk around it in real time. Room Planner 3D goes further, allowing customers to visualize the piece of furniture in their home even when they’re on the go.
“We’re letting customers capture the space first,” Sadalgi says of Room Planner 3D. “So you take a photo, and that photo is a very piece of rich information about your room. At a later point in time — maybe you’re on the subway, or maybe you’re at a friend’s house or whatever — you can pull up your room, and then you can add furniture as if you were there. So you don’t have to actually be in the space to plan your space.”
It’s not just homeware companies that have embraced the digital option. Augmented reality has found a natural fit in the beauty industry, and like major furniture retailers, bigger brands have been using the tech for several years. The experiences they offer continue to be refined as the technology improves. Leading players like L’Oréal, Sephora, Procter & Gamble, and more have been honing their version of the AR over time, offering customers a more interactive shopping experience.
For Lynda Pak, senior vice president at beauty powerhouse Estée Lauder, AR lets shoppers gain a familiarity with many of the products within its portfolio of 29 brands.
“AR is becoming a way for a consumer to be able to engage with a beauty advisor or makeup artist,” she says. “It may be tied in with, let’s say, a digital consultation. But if the consumer wants no live consultation whatsoever, [they] can just try the various shades on their own as well.
“The AR experiences that we have right now are really around virtual try-on for makeup,” she continues. “That encompasses eye, it encompasses foundation, it encompasses lip, and we also have skin diagnostic capabilities. The calibration that we’ve done is able to note if you’ve got some dry patches or red flares, or if you’re looking a little tired — it will highlight some of those skin concerns. When we go into haircare, we’re able to view the scalp and the condition of the hair close to the scalp, as well as further down to the ends. You’re able to see what you look like as a blonde, of what you may look like with an ombre. It’s a great way to get a sense of what the shade will look like.”
In both of these industries, as well as a number of others that rely on customization or fit, consumers are beginning to shop differently. Companies like Facebook have invested heavily in online transactions, encouraging more purchases in the digital realm.
Instagram now boasts its Shopping and Checkout options to allow businesses to advertise and complete transactions through the app, offering an alternative to website- or brand app-based shopping platforms — all with a potential customer base of over a billion. As buyers continue to explore new ways to make their shopping decisions, brands are increasingly focusing on how they present their products digitally.
Making the digital feel physical
Changes in retail have always been tied to developments in technology. The advent of the postal service inspired mail-order catalogs. Televisions created shopping channels. The internet ushered in the possibility of online shopping, and mobile phones — with their cameras — have been the launchpad for AR and 3D. Each leap creates more opportunity for shoppers to see the product how it really is — as if it was already on their body or in their homes.