illustration of a woman in front of a smartphone the size of a wall mirror. clothing options are hovering in front of her while an image of what she would look like in those clothes is on the smartphone.

How AR is redefining the ecommerce experience

Written by

Beth Owens

on

February 23, 2021

Augmented reality. It sounds high-tech, complicated, and expensive. But it’s far more ubiquitous than you might think. 

In fact, there’s every chance you’ve already used it - along with 81.3 million Americans who are using AR on a monthly basis.

Those fun Snapchat filters that make you beautiful, terrifying, or hilarious? That’s social AR at work. We also can’t forget about Pokemon Go, the mobile game which marked a major breakthrough in the widespread adoption of AR technology.

Fun and games aside, what is augmented reality - and why is it changing how consumers shop online? That’s exactly what Whiplash is here to unpack for you!

What is Augmented Reality?

At the most basic level, augmented reality (AR) is an immersive technology that blends real-world surroundings with virtual elements. This differs from virtual reality (VR) which puts the consumer in an entirely fabricated setting that takes them away from their real-world surroundings. 

In a retail setting, AR adds another layer of engagement and interactivity to the online shopping journey - helping retailers to meet increased consumer expectations for more immersive ecommerce experiences. With the launch of Google’s ARcore and Apple’s ARKit making it much more accessible for brands to build AR into their offerings, we’re set to see AR become a mainstream feature in online retail.

Why is AR in such demand right now?

The stats don’t lie; consumers love having augmented reality as a feature of the online shopping experience - and they want more of it. Over half of consumers (61%) say they prefer to make purchases from sites that incorporate AR technology.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced consumers to migrate to digital channels to meet their needs, and many are doing this for the first time. Omnichannel and multichannel retailers - unable to easily serve their customers in physical channels - have had to explore new ways to remove friction from the online shopping experience.

illustration of a storefront with a ‘closed’ sign on the top and two people outside trying to get in

AR technology offers both retailers and digitally-native brands a wealth of applications for bringing a more immersive quality to traditional ecommerce - especially during a time when in-store retail is considered a health risk.

But it’s important to note that the recent growth of AR isn’t solely due to the pandemic; it’s been aided by the huge uptake of AR-capable smartphones and tablet devices to conduct digital shopping journeys. As more consumers utilize mobile to search for product information and pricing, AR is a natural extension that consumers have been quick to adopt. 

How does AR benefit retailers?

Bridging the gap between online and offline

Historically, there’s been a massive divide between the ecommerce and in-store customer experiences - even when shopping at the same retailer. 

This is a particular challenge when digital and physical selling channels come with their unique pros and cons. Brick and mortar allows consumers to interact with products but is tied to a particular time and place. While online stores allow customers to shop on their terms, it requires them to take a risk on untried or untested products.

AR helps online retailers bring the essence of the in-store experience to the ecommerce customer journey - offering customers unparalleled flexibility in how they interact with products and make purchasing decisions. 

Lower return rates (and higher conversions)

High return rates are a persistent problem in ecommerce due to the difficulty of ‘testing’ products. Augmented reality goes a long way towards removing these barriers by allowing customers to virtually ‘try’ a product within the context of their own home or body. This helps them to avoid unsuitable purchases that will ultimately bounce back into your warehouse. 

Moreover, AR gives consumers more confidence that their purchasing decision is the right one. A study from last year by Apple found that consumers are 11 times more likely to buy furniture if they can use AR to see how it looks within their home. 

Adding value to your brand

The concept of ‘value’ is often tricky for brands to define; it’s the intangible ‘something extra’ that creates a satisfying customer experience. It persuades consumers to choose you over competitors, and turns first-time buyers into repeat customers. But consumers always know a value-added retailer when they see one.

Augmented reality is a key indicator of value because it offers consumers a powerful set of tools to assist their purchasing decisions. In fact, studies show that consumers are willing to pay as much as 40% more for a product that can be ‘tried’ through AR!

3 ways that digitally-native brands can utilize AR technology (and who is already doing it)

Product visualization

In an online retail setting, AR helps consumers to see how a product would look within the context of their home environment. It brings a more hands-on dimension to digital shopping that’s highly engaging for consumers, encouraging them to move further along the buying journey toward purchasing.

Who is doing it:

Ikea was one of the earliest adopters of AR technology via its Place app, which allows customers to choose and position furniture virtually within their home entirely to scale for a more realistic representation:

"Try as you buy"

Apparel and cosmetics brands arguably face even more difficulty than home furnishings when it comes to ‘trying’ garments or products in advance. Getting to style and experiment with different looks (often with the assistance of store associates) is a key part of the buying journey. The increasing sophistication of AR technology has opened up new opportunities to engage online customers through digital ‘try-ons’. 

Who is doing it:

Sephora: Sephora’s Virtual Artist app allows customers to try out products from a variety of brands via facial recognition software, which ensures correct placement of product. This offering has been a major advantage for Sephora while in-store cosmetics testing is discontinued due to COVID-19 concerns.


Who is doing it:

Warby Parker: The eyewear brand offers a virtual try-on feature via its app so customers can see that explore their full range. It also features Apple Pay integration for an even more seamless shopping journey.


Marketing campaigns

Marketing is an area that offers the highest potential for AR. Its ability to build immersive experiences is a major competitive advantage for retailers by bringing customers directly into the brand story. The continuing novelty of AR also helps to grow recognition beyond an existing customer base, which is invaluable for brand awareness campaigns.

Who is doing it:

Starbucks: The coffee giant poked fun at its extensive menu by launching an AR filter through Instagram called ‘Which Drink?” that matches customers with their perfect beverage. They also encouraged its use within Starbucks locations to promote its customer service and satisfying in-store experience: 

screenshot of two people using the Starbucks ‘which drink are you’ filter on snapchat


As the pace of technological development advances, so does the potential of augmented reality to revolutionize the retail sector. We’re already seeing a lot of exciting developments that are sure to grow as the technology becomes more accessible to both consumers and businesses. One thing is for sure; AR is a space that all retailers and online brands should be keeping an eye on as immersive shopping experiences become the norm.

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