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Technology. Retail’s friend or Foe?

woman wearing virtual reality VR headset

The sci-fi thriller Minority Report includes a scene where John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) is at the mall and personalised digital ads come to life as he walks through the large, cavernous space.

In a nutshell

  1. As technology becomes more ingrained in our lives, so does the tension between our ‘real’ in-person lives and our digital lives.
  2. VR can help tell the origin story of products, building trust by backing up claims through storytelling
  3. As fuel prices rise and people remain uneasy about leaving home, there is increasing interest to meet customers online at home.

A retina scan gives advertisers the ability to push products on him like a new Lexus or American Express card, as well as accessing his previous purchase history to determine whether his socks need replacing.  

As technology becomes more ingrained in our lives, so does the tension between our ‘real’ in-person lives and our digital lives. As with Minority Report, we often focus on the dystopian possibilities of technology; but the truth is that when it works well, technology has the power to improve our everyday lives. 

Augmented reality holds exciting promise for retailers despite marketers still being ill-equipped to deliver, and technology and privacy laws prevent still-presenting challenges. 

To do AI, AR and VR well, retailers and marketers must: 

  • Improve the convenience of shopping from home and allow shoppers to test products 
  • Offer the opportunity to envision products and add value to customer experiences  
  • Power storytelling and build trust in brands’ claims 
  • Personify online communications with more authentic elements

VR headsets allow you to envision what you can’t see 

Virtual reality is another contentious technology development. It is often written off as being relevant only to gamers but, from a retailing perspective, it can be a powerful sales tool and should not be discounted. 

When sent to architecture firms to trial at no cost, VR headsets are often purchased. Steve Fox, Principal of Australian architecture firm, Architectus, says developing 3D designs allows clients to tap into the sensory experience of VR and provide feedback earlier in the process reducing mistakes, ambiguous communication and unresolved conflicts.

Roomy is a service in the Netherlands helping realtors and design lovers virtually stage homes, saving on listing time, and undoubtedly encouraging them to emotionally invest in property. 

An immersive VR experience was offered to entertain passengers travelling across The Channel between Paris and London on the Eurostar. Eurostar Odyssey is one of the earliest examples of an on-board, virtual reality experience for young people and those who simply enjoy escapism. 

Lifting the lid off the train, the VR experience replaces it with a glass ceiling, to make you feel as if you really are underwater in the English Channel. Experiential marketing at its best! 

AR in your home 

As fuel prices rise and people remain uneasy about leaving home because of COVID-19, there is increasing interest to meet customers online at home. Augmented reality allows shoppers to virtually try a range of products from beauty to accessories, to a new pair of winter boots without leaving their living room. 

Department store Smith & Caugheys has adopted photo-realistic makeup simulation technology to allow customers to test makeup products digitally. 

Managing Director, Edward Caughey, made the announcement by sharing pictures of himself on LinkedIn wearing different shades of lipstick and asking his connections “Pink, purple or red?”.  

The Virtual Try-On technology has been well received. Smith & Caugheys has seen double digit growth on relevant SKUs which is impressive in a COVID-19 environment with mask-wearing still widespread in New Zealand. 

Build trust and back up your brand claims in store or on pack 

Amidst a rise in fake news, dubious sustainability claims and fair washing, distrust is now most peoples’ default emotion and can hurt retailers in the pocket. 

VR can help tell the origin story of products, building trust by backing up claims through storytelling. Take Uncle Ben’s as an example – they created an immersive on-pack AR experience taking shoppers along the harvest journey from “farm to fork”. 

Other brand promises, no matter how frivolous, can come to life through fun and visually appealing point-of-sale retail promotions in-store. Coco Pops partnered with AR technology company Blippar in the Middle East to bring to life a jungle environment where kids could learn about wildlife and chocolate. This proved that the cereal brand really did bring chocolatey fun to breakfast. 

Part man part machine, AI brings authenticity to digital characters 

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology raised legal and ethical issues about the use of AI as it has increasingly been used to create realistic digital characters. 

In the hands of marketers, a tool like this certainly holds appeal for its power to connect in less judgmental, more empathetic ways with customers and quickly earn their trust. 

AI startup Soul Machines enables organisations to make the customer interface with technology more authentic using Digital People with a wide range of expressions. Their ‘Digital Brain’ learns by watching and listening to people through their microphone and camera. Soul Machines even created a prototype of Black Eyed Peas member will.i.am, programmed to speak additional languages appealing to international fans. Retailers could certainly benefit from an online sales assistant that responds to emotional cues and speaks 12 different languages – Soul Machines also claims its skin care consultant Yumi doubled product sales.  

As companies vie to harness technology to improve consumer experience and profitability, inevitably some trends will hold as the new industry standard, and others will be temporary fads. Linking the successful examples highlighted here are a focus on convenience for the customer, and utilising new technologies to reduce friction in the purchasing experience.  

This article was originally published on Inside Retail

Sahar Lone
Sahar Lone
Cultural Lead
Sahar is Cultural Lead at TRA, and has 15 years of experience in strategy, marketing and communications. Her career began as a business journalist, before working for New Zealand's top arts organisations, not-for-profit and local government agencies. She continues to carry out qualitative research and deliver insights for public and private sector organisations in her role at TRA.

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