OAKLAND, California. – When Eden Chen Sneaker wants to go shopping, he takes out his smartphone and points the camera at his feet. Shoes materialize. He turns his feet from side to side. What does the shoe look like on his foot? How does the top of the sneaker meet the cuff of his pant leg?
“It’s one thing when a shoe looks great on display,” said Mr. Chen. “If it’s on your foot, it’s just different.”
Mr. Chen, who founded startups focused on gaming and augmented reality, is one of a growing number of consumers stuck at home shopping in augmented reality due to the pandemic.
The technology was made ubiquitous by the social media platform Snapchat, which used it to turn users’ faces into anime illustrations and add dancing hot dogs to their videos. As the pandemic continues, retailers are increasingly relying on augmented reality to help customers try on products. It displays goods as filters for what they see on their phones, sews shoes on customers’ feet, adds makeup to their faces, and drops furniture into their homes.
The process is not easy, said Mr. Chen. Sometimes your shoes flicker as the artificial intelligence that powers them struggles to pinpoint exactly where they should be. In other cases, the shoes unnaturally overlap with the pant legs and cover them instead of disappearing under them.
But it’s better than not trying them on at all.
“The first time I did that was when the Nike Diors came out,” said Jerry Lu, an investor at Maveron, a venture capital firm. The sneakers, a collaboration between one of the most famous sportswear companies in the world and the French luxury goods company, promised to combine “haute couture and high-performance sportswear”. They were published online but were not available in boutiques.
“I knew I couldn’t get it,” said Mr. Lu. “Why not just play around with that filter to see if I had it?”
Traditional retailers struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic hope that augmented reality can help them restore the real shopping experience to the virtual world. Retailer sales on Black Friday were down 20 percent year over year, according to an estimate by Morgan Stanley, but online spend that day rose 21.6 percent, according to Adobe Analytics.
Retailers’ demand for augmented reality has drawn many of them to Snap, the parent company of Snapchat, which has made an effort to add shopping experiences to their range of filters. The company started adding shopping filters in June and now offers augmented reality try-on experiences for luxury brands like Gucci and Dior, as well as makeup tutorials from cosmetics maker Too Faced. This month Snap partnered with Perfect, a company that creates makeup try-on experiences, to add more beauty filters and shopping experiences to Snapchat.
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“The pandemic has accelerated a lot of the conversations we’ve had,” said Carolina Arguelles Navas, product strategy director for augmented reality at Snap.
Traditional retailers like Home Depot and internet giants like Amazon have also experimented with the technology, using augmented reality filters to display furniture in consumers’ homes.
Some companies that focus on augmented reality have developed apps that are designed solely for trying on sneakers, such as: B. Wanna Kicks. Others, like Marxent, have worked with retailers to develop augmented reality experiences that focus on their products. In June, Snap also released a tech library of tools that developers can use to identify and classify objects to create augmented reality filters for Snapchat.
The shopping filters have resulted in a deluge of bends or demonstrations as users rush to share pictures of themselves “wearing” Gucci and other brands. Nearly 19 million Snapchat users have tried Gucci products with the filter, Snap said.
Trying on high-end products in augmented reality doesn’t always lead to sales, however. Alex Sirota, a 21-year-old student at Northwestern University, said she had played with new augmented reality shopping experiences on Snapchat many times but never made a purchase.
She’s tried on Dior sunglasses, Sally Hansen nail polish, and Nike trainers. But sometimes the technology is flawed or slow and cannot give users a sense of how products feel. If possible, she still likes to shop in person.
“When I want to buy something, I want the experience of going to the store, trying things on and making sure it’s actually for me,” said Ms. Sirota. “It’s not an automatic” I have to have it “. It’s on the list that hopefully one day I can afford it or convince my parents to buy it for me.”
Snap argues that it should be considered a win to turn an ad into something that people want to share with their friends rather than skip it. And for the younger Snapchat users who can’t afford luxury goods, augmented reality can be a way to connect with the social media influencers they see on YouTube and TikTok.
“You feel part of this ‘in’ group too,” said Mr. Lu.
While people who shop in augmented reality use these imagery to demonstrate, retailers are hoping the technology can help avoid one of their biggest fears for the holiday season: returning.
Deborah Weinswig, the executive director of Coresight Research, a consulting and research firm specializing in retail and technology, said users have been engaging with augmented reality experiences three times as long as traditional ecommerce websites, and retailers hope it means fewer exchanges and returns.
Without augmented reality to simulate trying on, shopping during the pandemic is associated with the usual frustrations when shopping online. “I just bought some items from Nike for Black Friday and I’m giving them back,” he said. “Your way of trying things on is buying them and giving them back.”
Returns have always been a problem for online retailers, especially after the holidays. However, analysts fear the rush will be particularly bad this year as consumers become more reliant on online purchases and economic pressures from the pandemic are causing them to rethink their purchases.
“I think we will see returns that we have never seen in US history,” said Ms. Weinswig. “It’s going to be a bloodbath.”