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The coming of Internet has radically changed sales models in the fashion and luxury sectors, by redefining the aspects linked to the shopping experience, in which the customer has gradually taken on a central role. The first effect of this has been the decline in traditional retail models, to the growing advantage of solutions based on e-commerce and, more in general, on the loss of centrality of the physical store in the purchase experience. As we shall see, retail is nevertheless absolutely not dead, though it requires a drastic shift in philosophy to respond to the commercial demands of companies again.
The democratization offered by the Web continues, to this day, to appear as a menace for brands that have not been able to take advantage of the same tools causing their crisis. Among the countless advantages that the digital world may bring to Fashion & Luxury businesses, there is the possibility to efficiently involve users searching for information in the overwhelming presentation of content that the Internet offers. Indeed, today it is possible to use 3D, AR, and VR technology to create a customer experience that may allow the differentiation of a single brand’s offer against a growingly aggressive competition.
Upon analysis of certain well-known case studies, it is evident that Augmented Reality not only has a great potential, but is a concrete element that can support marketing strategies and online to offline sales. The following review of course does not aspire to be exhaustive in terms of technology available, but rather intends to present useful insights to help understand the potential of digital applications based upon immersive technology in the Fashion and Luxury sector.
MOBILE EXPERIENCE (VIRTUAL MIRROR)
One of the technological advantages of Augmented Reality is the ability to exploit the features of mass-marketed devices such as tablets and smartphones. All it needs is thus the device that the target market owns and uses on a constant basis, without the need to lean on specific devices, as instead occurs with Virtual Reality.
By using the front-facing camera and the screen of a mobile device, it is thus possible to add computer graphics information to real-life images, using multi-layer management logic. The app uses face recognition technology, which allows it to track the motion of a face, guaranteeing the perfect coherence between real-life content and digital content. This has led to the birth of solutions defined “Virtual Try On”, such as Sephora Visual Artist, the augmented reality app that allows customers of the famous brand in the cosmetics sector to put makeup on and try the different products in the catalog. The app offers a wide range of options, such as the comparison between different makeup configurations in the “before and after” mode, using a very intuitive slider tool. A further added value of the mobile app is social network interaction, which allows users to share their creations and create a true product-specific community.
The Sephora Virtual Artist application is based on a proprietary technology developed by Modiface, a startup recently purchase by the L’Oréal group.
While the implementation in the cosmetics industry is almost taken for granted when thinking of a virtual mirror, it is also possible to apply the same logic based upon an interactive relationship between the product and person to other Fashion and Luxury products. Take, for example, rings, necklaces, and other jewels, configurable in various versions, with the user assessing their fit in real time.
AUGMENTED RETAIL + MOBILE VIRTUAL FITTING AND “ONLINE TO OFFLINE” STRATEGIES
The augmented reality mirror allows the creation of proper virtual fitting rooms. In fact, Virtual Fitting was born to bridge the gap between the online experience – abstract, though rich in data – and the natural desire to test a product by trying it on as if you were in a traditional fitting room. The result is a customer-centric solution, which offers customers the opportunity to direct their research following their own desires, and be absolute masters of their own choices.
A 3D technology like the one embedded in the FX Mirror is able to trace the measures and motion of the body, processing the images of its configuration tool in real time. The behavior of the fabric becomes physically credible – by means of a digital simulation software inherited by the VFX industry – and realistic, thanks to a live 3D rendering mechanism. Virtual Fitting thus generates a practical (more comfortable than the traditional fitting room), intuitive (anyone is basically accustomed to using a mirror), and involving (users can play around with the mirror and unleash their wildest imaginations) experience. A Virtual Mirror technology that can adapt to both the real image (at the retail outlet) or a 3D avatar generated thanks to image recognition (online), with a hybrid potential that allows users to customize their experience by simply handling a mobile app.
There are multiple benefits of an online to offline approach for Brands and retailers: above all, the opportunity to digitalize the product catalog and swiftly update it, also anticipating the availability of the physical product. Moreover, retailers may take advantage of the electronic catalog to offer a large variety of options to the customer, which in the traditional idea of physical product would be much more costly and complex to manage in terms of logistics. This type of tool also comes in handy in the product development phase, to carry out market research.
As well as on the big screens possibly installed in stores, Virtual Fitting is also available through mobile apps. Furthermore, the online service offers a double alternative that introduces Avatar Fitting, as in the case of FIT’N SHOP.
To this day, Avatar Fitting has found its most widespread use in the Sansar universe, the VR social network developed by Linden Lab – the same company that created Second Life, a virtual world in which anyone could create his/her avatar and build spaces in which to live their own dystopia. The cooperation between Linden Lab and Marvelous Designer, a fashion tech software house specialized in digital simulation of fabric, has given birth to an application allowing the creation of clothes for one’s avatar in Sansar, as well as the sale of one’s creations at a dedicated store. It is an additional opportunity for fashion and luxury brands, which may avail themselves of the virtual market to implement – even before sales targeted to avatars – their advertising strategies. These aspects were already widely discussed a decade ago, when Second Life seemed destined to become a social universe including each and every person, as in a 3D version of Facebook. Things didn’t go as well as many hoped they would – in terms of large numbers, Second Life turned out to be a rather short-lived fad – but the potential of interactive digital worlds in creating communities, thus potential customer targets for a product, are well known: just think of the multiplayer experiences in the gaming industry. Will Sansar manage to become that which Second Life has never been?
On the basis of Virtual Mirror applications, brands and retailers can both support the experience within a store and develop specific marketing strategies for specific situations, as the setup developed by Timberland demonstrated. Once again, the magic mirror generates something that the online experience wouldn’t be able to satisfy in terms of interaction between user and product, offering a certainly greater level of emotional and physical involvement.
PRODUCT CUSTOMIZATION (RETAIL) EXPERIENCE
Product customization (mass customization) is an essential feature of a brand’s offer, in order to meet customer requirements and their natural desire to select the characteristics of the product they plan to purchase. Once again, Augmented Reality and 3D projection technology play a crucial role in this, as proven by the NIKEid Direct Studio setup. The installation, placed at Nike stores in London, allows users to configure a standard shoe using an iPad, and see the result in real time thanks to a 3D mapping system. The app – initially used for employee training – has turned out to be the main attraction of the Nike stores for end users as well. It is the second relevant experience for the US sports brand, after the 3D projection mapping setup at Paris Nike stores in 2015.
The footwear sector, especially in the sport and leisure subcategories, has been among the first to avail itself of digital technology for product configuration. In this context, one cannot fail to mention the famous try-on app by Converse, which allowed to select versions of the iconic Chuck Taylors, choose the right size, and see them on one’s feet with a POV-perspective.
Main retailers in the footwear sector – some more convinced, some less – have adopted strategies based on product personalization to accompany or integrate shopping based upon the traditional selection from a catalog. The use of AR apps and 3D configurators is not of course exclusive to top players in the sector, but is helpful for all manufacturers aiming to make their experience customer-centric, as well as embracing the advantages of product catalog digitization in terms of cost and development time reduction.
RETAIL ENHANCED (AUGMENTED) EXPERIENCE
To rethink traditional retail by integrating immersive technology gives the opportunity to develop strategies with an essentially unlimited creative potential. As opposed to Virtual Reality, which tends to present a completely alternative environment, Augmented Reality is based upon the addition of contextual information: it does not replace the world in which we live, but integrates it and – as the definition itself suggests – augments its content and value in terms of experience. Given such assumptions, it is simple to understand how, today, Augmented Reality in stores is the ideal tool to integrate the data that users would, in alternative, search online. By downloading the AR app of a specific brand, the client may enter the orbit of an all-encompassing shopping experience, with the power to fully bridge the perceptive gap between the digital and the physical product, which continues to be one of the most evident barriers of e-commerce. This is also true in the Fashion and Luxury sector, where factors including the search for product sizes and dimensions continue to heavily influence the final decision. Through the interaction between the store and the users’ smartphones, the latter carry out a wide range of operations, including:
- obtain product specifications and data;
- read reviews and opinions by influencers and experts;
- consult tutorials and manuals;
- compare prices and assess alternatives (often suggested by the app itself);
- search for sizes and dimensions;
- try the product on by means of “before and after” modes allowing comparison between more than one solution, and select a product by means of “try and buy” systems;
- purchase goods both in-store and online, through the related app.
Thanks to Augmented Reality, the retail experience embraces the possibilities of digital technology, which becomes a precious ally in marketing strategy, to attract potential customers to visit the shop and test the exclusive services awaiting them. American Apparel was among the first brands to ever offer its customers an experience based upon the integration between the physical store and an AR app. Zara has also embraced such opportunity by means of the Zara AR+ app.
In terms of retailers, the advantages of adopting an AR-based strategy develop on different levels, in that the apps allow them to continuously acquire data that is growingly vital for the definition of strategies based on consumer behavior: online suggestion tools are an example of this, with AI systems capable of presenting solutions inspired by individual user habits.
OMNICHANNEL STRATEGIES AND CONFIGURATION PLATFORMS
We have observed how Augmented Reality apps allow the hybridization necessary to the creation and implementation of Omnichannel strategies, and how this calls for rethinking the way in which the customer is approached, and consequently how goods and services are developed. The digital shopping experience sees a proliferation of front-end solutions equipped with a growingly effective and involving UX. In their apparent simplicity, they require increasingly structured and complex management platforms to work, with a back-end that may catalyze and make available a large amount of data and variables, with the sales elements above all. KPIs in traditional retail today must fall under a broader logic, including a growing variety of product communication and sales channels. This generates considerable growth in terms of data to assess, which includes new-generation behavior elements such as ROPO (research online purchase offline), “See Now Buy Now”, or other trends that are strongly influenced by brand communication on social media.
In the scope of digital transformation of companies in the Fashion and Luxury sector, Augmented Reality consumer applications appear as the tip of the iceberg of a 3D configuration platform able to handle – underwater – a myriad of facets that are “invisible” to the end user: availability, logistics, orders, customer service, and any purely operational requirement related to customization of a brand’s products. Such aspects shall not emerge, the buyer shall not bear responsibility for them, but they are fundamental in supporting a successful customer experience, particularly in a medium-long term perspective.
This post is also available in: Italiano