Lessons in augmented reality from the retail sector

Megan Wright

From IKEA to Westfield, brands are adopting AR faster than everbut getting it right is easier said than done

IKEA hero
Image: Inter IKEA Systems

Gone are the days of the drawn out, painful IKEA trip. This week marked the release of IKEA Place, an augmented reality (AR) application that allows customers to visualize products in their home prior to purchase.

The Swedish home giant, which is known for being a forward-thinker on the innovation curve, is once again using technology to improve both products and customer experience.

Rolled out as one of the first wave of AR apps compatible with Apple’s new ARKit technology and iOS 11, IKEA Place features a catalogue of over 2,000 products that are scaled based on room dimensions with 98 per cent accuracy.


In fact, the AR technology is so precise that users can see the texture of the fabric, as well as how light and shadows are rendered on furnishings. Technology is finally catching up with the brand’s ambition, said Michael Valdsgaard, leader digital transformation at Inter IKEA Systems.

“Augmented reality and virtual reality will be a total game changer for retail in the same way as the internet. Only this time, much faster,” he said. “AR lets us redefine the experience for furniture retail once more.”

It's all about emotion 

As more brands embrace AR technology, it's fast becoming clear that there's a lot more to it than simply choosing to adopt. According to Paul Sands, former director of retail development and customer experience at Bang & Olufsen, it’s about engaging customers on an emotional level.

“Augmented reality and virtual reality will be a total game changer for retail in the same way as the internet."

Sands classes these kinds of interactions as “phygital”the blending of physical and digital worlds to create an interactive experience not unlike augmented reality. The outcome? “More opportunity to deliver a customer experience in many more locations,” he said.

“Above all I believe phygital will reposition mobile devices from being thought of as a ‘channel’ in their own right to a ‘tool’ that follows the user across channels.” In fact, Sands credits mobile devices for the degree of cross-generational success of AR app Pokemon Go.

Read more: Building an enterprise AI strategy

Moreover, opportunities are rife for brands that recognize access to these intelligent innovations require little more technology than what most people have in their pockets or handbags, said Sands.

For this reason, retail giant Westfield has been quick to embrace AR as a core element of its key marketing campaigns, especially in the fashion category. “It allows us to create very immersive experiences for consumers,” said Myf Ryan, CMOUK & Europe at Westfield.

Community is key 

But as the AR race speeds up, retail futurist Howard Saunders offers a word of caution. The mistake that brands are more commonly making, he said, is in attempting to make their in-store experiences mirror the online world. This results in a "slippery" customer experience, which is far from ideal. 

Retail hero

Photo by Heidi Sandstrom. on Unsplash

Like Valdsgaard and Sands, Saunders believes emotional connection is the missing link here. “Ironically, because you can get everything you could ever possibly want, retailers now have to offer something else,” he said.

“We don’t shop for stuff anymore. We shop to be there, to browse, to sit down and watch the world go by. It’s a funny little thing called community.” And to be successful in this economy, it's the brands applying technology to enhance the retail experiencerather than replace itthat are gaining the most traction. 

The lesson for those looking to follow in the footsteps of IKEA is therefore surprisingly simple: Apply technology to solve a problem, not to create another. Sounds simple, doesn't it? 

Want more? Become a member of the AI & Intelligent Automation Network for free access to industry news, whitepapers and articles. Sign up today.