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How retail brands will redefine the customer journey in the age of ‘AR everywhere’

By Ian Heisters | Senior UX Engineer



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July 26, 2023 | 6 min read

After years of talk about digital twins and ‘phygital’ realities, will augmented reality be the thing to finally deliver unified experiences across retailers’ physical and digital presences? Niantic’s Ian Heisters thinks so.

A phone showing lens flare

How will webAR transform the retail customer journey? / Rodion Kutsaiev via Unsplash

There will be 1.7 billion mobile augmented reality users across the globe by 2024, representing a massive addressable market for brands. With the proliferation of webAR – which allows mobile users to access augmented reality (AR) experiences via web browsers, no app required – marketers have the opportunity to define next-generation customer journeys to create more meaningful connections with consumers and grow their businesses.

One of the industries where we see the most potential to unlock the full value of AR is retail.

By 2025, over 40% of Gen Z consumers will have used AR to inform online purchase decisions. It’s easy to see why. Virtual try-on is a frictionless way for consumers to see how they look in everything from a new t-shirt to new makeup. AR also enables brands to rethink brick-and-mortar stores with engaging in-store experiences to attract foot traffic, hold attention, and drive sales.

The augmented customer journey

The challenge for retail brands is designing an integrated AR customer journey that drives ROI across multiple channels, including e-commerce and brick-and-mortar. What does that look like in practice?

Let’s say you frequently shop with a brand online. It knows your preferences and purchase history and can use this information to create a personalized online shopping experience. The issue is that, once you step into their store, all that context is lost.

AR can solve that pain point. In an AR customer journey, you can use webAR on your phone to check in to a store. This check-in will relay that you’ve arrived (should you opt-in), what’s in your online shopping cart, and what you want to see in person. It will allow you to tap a button and access in-store customer service that already knows your shopping preferences and sizes.

Or let’s say you are in-store and want to try on a new jacket, but they don’t have the color you like. You could try on the jacket in the wrong color, view it through AR to change it to your preferred color and, with the touch of a button, order it to be shipped to your home. For consumers, the AR customer journey delivers an experience as personalized in-store as it is online. For brands, it enables them to build deeper customer relationships and better shopping experiences.

The brand storytelling opportunity

Linking the customer journey across e-commerce and brick-and-mortar is especially important right now. Following the e-commerce boom during the pandemic, retail brands are radically rethinking retail spaces. AR unlocks a space’s digital twin and populates it with engaging location-based experiences, ‘expanding’ the store in the minds of consumers without adding a single square foot.

Smart retail brands will also start to use AR for brand storytelling. We know that gen Z especially considers a brand’s mission, vision and values before making purchasing decisions. Retailers can use webAR to bring their product story to life with a simple scan – for example, showing consumers how a shirt’s material was sourced. Similar features are already available online; this is another way retail brands can connect the online and in-store experience while drawing a younger demographic of high-value shoppers to brick-and-mortar.

Smartphones’ ubiquity makes webAR the go-to technology for creating a new, consumer-friendly AR customer journey. Looking further ahead, retailers can start considering how to engage customers using AR glasses and other emerging devices. These devices will provide customers with rich, location-based contextual awareness and the opportunity for immersive experiences.

Brands can use devices’ contextual awareness to engage customers, for example, by delivering notifications when a customer is near an AR-activated location. Tapping into our own Niantic map to place AR experiences near their customers can also help to drive users to retail locations or to create memorable experiences users are excited to engage in. Leveraging Niantic’s platform and metaverse deployment, these experiences will be accessible to the broadest audience possible, whether they have glasses, phones, or other AR devices.

We’re at an exciting time for AR. Brands already use this technology to increase key metrics like dwell time, click-through rate, brand affinity, and sales. We’re fast approaching a future where consumers will expect brick-and-mortar to be an experiential destination with the same level of personalization as e-commerce. AR is the key to meeting those expectations and building a winning brand.

Marketing Ecommerce Retail

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Niantic builds augmented reality technology that powers the real-world metaverse. Its Lightship platform is the world’s first scaled AR platform, enabling developers around the world to create sophisticated AR experiences for phones and eventually AR glasses. Lightship is also the foundation for Niantic’s hit games, including Pokémon GO, Pikmin Bloom and Ingress.

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