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Could Experiential Shopping Improve the Customer Experience?

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With online sales up 18 per cent over the recent Christmas period (Financial Times report 8th Jan) it seems that enticing customers in-store is becoming increasingly challenging. Augmented reality could be the solution to the problem and yet, despite its potential, instances of this kind of technology being available to the consumer are still rare throughout UK retail.

The potential for augmented reality technology to enhance the physical shopping experience is already being demonstrated in a number of different ways. Recently we have seen film studio Universal Pictures team up with augmented reality platform Aurasma, to launch an app that made movie characters interact with London landmarks through the use of a smartphone or tablet device, as part of its 100th anniversary celebrations.

With modern phones and tablet devices in the pockets of the majority of customers, there is an opportunity to revolutionise the in-store experience. The ability to access real-time content, like record samples in a music store, simply by pointing a smart device at a nominated image allows the customer to become truly immersed in their environment and facilitates a full experience of the products on offer.

A major retail trend emerging over the last year is shop online, buy in-store. Increasingly consumers are choosing to browse products over the internet from the comfort of their own homes before viewing the item in person in order to make the final purchasing decision. Augmented reality has the potential to not only bring that whole process in-store, through video samples for example, but also to make it more engaging.

Imagine entering a clothing store and spotting an item that you like. The combination of augmented reality technology and the smart phone in your pocket would allow you to view the catwalk video for the garment, as you can currently do online, simply by pointing the phone's camera at it. Even before lifting the item from the rail you would have a better idea of how it would look and fit, helping make an informed decision about trying it on and buying it.

As customers, by our very nature, decisions are made spontaneously but the widespread availability of internet access makes those decisions easier to make. Coffee shop chains have already shown that by offering free Wi-Fi access, a significantly higher number of customers make purchases, as they are able to use their computer in a comfortable, sociable environment.

In the main, retailers are reluctant to offer customer internet access because of the initial set-up costs but, given its potential, it is something that really should be considered. Once up and running, and with enough direction on where the technology is available to customers, it will gradually begin to establish itself in shopping and sharing habits. The ability to instantly share the things you are buying with friends through social media would benefit consumers by making it easier to identify items we like and benefit retailers by exposing their products to a larger, fast-reacting audience.

A recent successful social media example is Zeebox, an app which works in conjunction with your television, relaying information on the actors, show background and clothing in the programme you are watching. This extra information and the social media sharing it generates opens up a whole new retail environment to consumers and has been seen to drive purchases for those companies that allowed their products to be labelled.

As a technology-savvy group of consumers, the extra avenues and opportunities opened up by augmented reality could fundamentally alter the way we shop and the shopping experience itself. In a time where money is tighter than ever we need to be sure our purchasing decisions are solid, well informed ones. Therefore the ability to access all manner of additional product information could make the shopping experience more interesting and informative and might just tempt us away from our computers.

Alex Wares is managing director at leading search marketing agency Mediarun