In-home retail: How Made.com and other retailers are boosting customer experience using social platforms and augmented reality

In a world where consumers increasingly play a participative role in brand communication, companies must adapt the way in which they market their products, particularly those operating within the retail sector. The Drum's Natalie Mortimer explores what retail brands including Made.com are doing to enable consumers to interact with their products in engaging ways, in their own homes.

It’s no longer adequate for a retailer to assume that the traditional path to purchase will today cut the mustard. Consumers want tangible, interactive and informative experiences before buying products, whether they are shopping in-store or online – a trend that is becoming ever more normalised as the physical and virtual environments plunge into deeper integration.

One brand that has been working to address this consumer demand head-on is online furniture retailer Made.com, which recently created a new platform to allow its fans to post pictures of their homes online showing products bought from the website. Country manager Annabel Kilner, who recently spoke at The Drum's Joy of CX conference, says the decision to create the platform, Unboxed, was driven by comments left on social media by would-be consumers questioning how a particular armchair or bed might look in their own setting.

“We used to get messages on social [media] when we launched a new design, saying ‘that’s beautiful but I’ve got no idea how to put a yellow sofa into my room’,” she says. “Our advertising is quite minimalist and the reason we went down that route is to focus on the quality of the product. But really what customers were saying to us on social was that; ‘I love the product but I can’t visualise how I put that into my own home’.”

As a result Unboxed was born, and the platform allows users to take a virtual house tour and meet face to face to see how Made.com customers have styled their products at home. The network aims to bridge the gap for Made.com’s customers who would like to see its products in a real-life situation before purchase. Visitors to the platform can search by postcode or by product to see who has purchased what in their area. While Kilner admits that it is too soon to report how Unboxed is going to impact the business – the platform launched in September this year – it has already given the company the opportunity to create valuable content that Made.com can use on its main product pages and in advertising and marketing materials.

In a comparable move Swedish furniture giant Ikea created an augmented reality (AR) app to enrich its catalogue and produce engaging content that allows consumers to explore its products and see how they might look in their own home. The idea for the AR experience, says Jens Ganslandt, product manager digital at Inter Ikea Systems B.V, developed after research conducted by the retailer found that almost three-quarters of people aren’t aware of the size of their homes, and therefore how furniture might look.

“We found that around 14 per cent of people have bought a piece of furniture that doesn’t fit when they get it home,” he reveals. “We also learnt that more than 70 per cent of people don’t even really know how big their homes are. We wanted to solve this problem in an easy and fun way through our app.”

Launched two years ago, the app now has a unique user base of more than 10 million users, and has been developed for the 2015 catalogue to allow consumers to create a shopping list using their favourite pieces in the digital Ikea catalogue, and then to continue shopping on the Ikea website or in the store. It has also improved the way the app allows shoppers to share images from the catalogue to social media networks.

“Our customers’ shopping experience is top of mind,” adds Ganslandt, “And we understand that people today are looking for more ways to access home furnishing inspiration. Ikea has always stood for finding solutions and for forward thinking; today this is even more relevant than ever.”

Outside the furniture domain a plethora of fashion brands, including Topshop, Asos and yoga wear company Lululemon, have been working in a similar vein, pulling together user-generated content from fans and consumers wearing their products to maximise the influence of these self-made brand ambassadors when it comes to generating sales. Research recently conducted by Crowdtap and Ipsos found that user-generated content is 20 per cent more influential than any other type of media when it comes to purchasing, and 50 per cent more trusted.

Olapic, a technology platform that enables publishers and e-commerce sites to integrate photos shared by users and fans on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to their own sites, has worked with brands such as New Balance and Coach to help build traffic and sales.

“We built the platform to allow any brand to connect with their consumers and with the photos they are taking,” says Jose de Cabo, co-founder of Olapic. “So we are listening to hashtags around the web on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. We collect that content, curate it and the brand has the final say if they think the photo is on-brand or off-brand and if it resonates well or not.

“We give them all the tools to do that and the ability to link the pictures to the corresponding product on their e-commerce site. Brands need content, and generating photos and videos is time consuming and expensive, so we're allowing them to tap into this repository of images on the web to use them in many different ways. Brands want to connect one-on-one with the consumer, and what better way to do it than when you have an ambassador of the brand?"

As the amount of data collected by brands about their consumers increases, so too will the demand for more personalised, integrated shopping experiences that spell out the story of how individuals cross the path of a brand and the ensuing steps they take to evaluate, purchase, and relate to it across the entire decision making process. In the future, not only will employing this style of marketing be key for consumer/brand interaction, it will be vital for getting, and staying, ahead of the competition.

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