E-commerce has revolutionised the retail industry through the level of comfort it provides, improved integration, the high degree of customer experience personalisation, and more. Nowadays, due to the ongoing Covid-19 situation, an ever-increasing number of consumers turn into online buyers.  The implemented lockdown policies forced shoppers to go digital, and according to recent studies, that will most probably cause a permanent behavioural shift towards online shopping with two in five people in the UK intending to carry on shopping online than return to the shops.

In this ever-changing, extremely high competitive landscape, e-commerce businesses need to embrace the latest innovations and trends to move ahead of the competition. Augmented reality is one of those technologies that its increasing popularity is starting to take the e-commerce industry to the next level.

Augmented reality is an interactive experience of a real-world environment, where physical objects are enhanced by digital-generated perceptual information or graphics, many times across multiple sensory modalities. This information can be constructive (i.e. as an addition to the natural environment), or destructive (i.e. masking the natural environment). Through the use of AR, components of the digital world blend into a person’s perception of the real world. That is achieved not through a mere display of data, but via integration of immersive sensations that are perceived by the user as part of the natural environment. An augmented reality system incorporates an accurate 3D registration of virtual and real objects, while at the same time offering real-time interaction.

Augmented reality and other immersive technologies, although vastly improved lately, are not a new thing; they are around for much longer than social media and smartphones. The term augmented reality was coined in 1990 by Thomas P. Caudell, a former Boeing researcher and two years later, the first functional AR system, Virtual Fixtures, was developed by Louis Rosenberg at the U.S. Airforce’s Armstrong Laboratory. Commercial augmented reality systems were first introduced in entertainment and gaming industries before they made a move into education, communications, and lately e-commerce, where 61% of online shoppers prefer to make purchases on sites that offer augmented reality technology.

The most significant commercial opportunity that incorporating AR technologies into your e-commerce strategy can provide is offering online shoppers a virtual in-store experience. As the boundaries between the physical and digital world are blurred through an augmented reality experience these days, so do the ones between in-store and online shopping. It is true that people much prefer the ability to see, feel, and try out products in real life over browsing through a menu on an online store. As a result, shoppers tend to spend more during a typical shopping visit than they do online. A 2019 survey indicates that 54% of consumers spend more than £39 online, but that increases up to 71% when shopping in bricks and mortar shops. Augmented reality allows the online shop owner to change that.

AR gives the consumers a sense of scale and allows them to evaluate products as if they were right in front of them. Instead of wondering if that couch fits in their living room of how does this pair of sunglasses look on them, online shoppers can project a virtual version of a product into their space or on them through their smartphone camera. Eventually, augmented reality will be proven tremendously beneficial to retail sectors like apparel or furniture where consumers are, in general, more reluctant to purchase online. Companies like IKEA and Nike are already offering AR retail apps and studies show that 70% of consumers expected to be more loyal to brands that incorporate augmented reality as part of their shopping experience. Moreover, becoming increasingly integrated with machine learning, AR systems will be able in the near future to ‘learn’ and adapt based on each customer’s shopping behaviour and purchasing patterns. As a result, augmented reality apps will begin to respond to the customer’s physical environment and make personalised, real-time product recommendations that the customer can ‘see’ in their space or on them.

AR will not just save the customers time, but also money. Products bought through an AR app are less likely to be returned and is well known that return costs are most of the times included in the product’s price. Nowadays, returns are a huge issue for online retailers and eventually, consumers. It is estimated that in the US alone, return deliveries will cost $550 billion in 2020, while in the UK more than 30% of the products purchased online are returned.  

Any e-commerce company can achieve higher customer satisfaction through augmented reality systems by providing interactive, highly engaging, personalised environments that enhance the online shopping experience without the restrains of a physical set up or inventory. There is a number of highly innovating AR start-ups today that help e-commerce businesses to develop augmented reality technologies that are embedded in each company’s website. One example is Emersya, that uses immersive technologies to online showcase products to scale and in high definition, creating that way in-depth, interactive customer experiences. Emersya’s technology (used by companies like Samsonite, Whirlpool, Moulinex, among others) can be integrated into any website, without the need for a specialised app, and it can run on any type of device. Canadian multinational e-commerce company Shopify is another platform that offers e-commerce merchants AR solutions. Their Shopify AR helps e-commerce companies to showcase realistic versions of their products, and like Emersya, consumers can access it through any web browser without the need for specialised apps or hardware.  

With companies like Emersya and Shopify making AR technologies more accessible to businesses of all sizes, an increasing number of brands is expected in the near future to incorporate augmented reality into their e-commerce solutions arsenal and make it an integral part of their marketing strategy. Using AR technologies, online merchants can offer an interactive, personalised experience that blurs the boundaries between online and in-store shopping and engages consumers at every stage of their shopping journey.  

Stathis Kampylis

Marketing and Communications Coordinator at Shiptheory