Virtual shopping goes viral: Retailers will use 5G-powered augmented-reality to let you try before you buy



  • 5G could usher in an explosion in retailers using augmented-reality to help enhance shopping experiences for consumers.
  • The technology’s speed, reliability of connection, and lack of drop-out that are key to the success of virtual shopping.
  • Retailers are already experimenting with AR, including IKEA’s Place app, which allows customers to see how furniture looks and fits in their homes.
  • It should also help small retailers, who can build AR experiences around their stores to attract and retain customers. 
  • Click here for more in Putting 5G to Work series.

We’ve all been there, when the excitement of buying a piece of furniture from a shop turns to dismay on arriving home and discovering it doesn’t look quite right where you planned it — or worse, doesn’t even fit.

5G promises to consign such disasters to history, and further transform everyone’s shopping experience with virtual reality (VR) and augmented-reality (AR) technology.

IKEA has already begun to show what’s possible with AR, with its Place app enabling customers to see exactly how more than 2,000 items in its catalogue would look and fit in shoppers’ homes.

IKEA’s Leader of Digital Transformation Michael Valdsgaard calls it “magic to experience.” He says: “You see the scene as if these objects were real and you can walk around them and interact with them.”

But IKEA is only one pioneer among many. As soon as 2020, 100 million consumers will be shopping in AR online and in-store, according to a study by Gartner published in April.

For consumers, the advantages are obvious and very appealing. In-store, AR will enable shoppers to view additional information on any product simply by pointing their phones at it.

Bill Ray, a senior director analyst at Gartner, demonstrates how AR will transform such everyday tasks as buying a tin of soup: “You’ll be able to see it displayed in a steaming bowl, or with extra bits added to it as a recipe, so you can value-add in that way.”

Read more: How 5G will banish awkward video conference calls when you’re out of the office, and cut your commute time

More dramatically, away from the store, a lot of guesswork will be taken out of the shopping experience, the hit and miss factor, as well as the time taken in returning and exchanging items.

Instead, consumers will be able to try easily before they buy, to visualise products in local environments — everything from imagining new paint on old walls, to trying on leather jackets before deciding on a size.

For Paul Lee, head of telecomms, media and, technology research at Deloitte, it is 5G’s speed, reliability of connection, and lack of drop-out that are key to the success of virtual shopping.

“You can go from browse, to try, to buy within a minute. During the Women’s World Cup, Nike used AR [on Snapchat] to offer shoppers the chance to try on a women’s football shirt. If you liked it, you could swipe it and buy it — you needed to add your size and credit card, but that will change,” he explains.

Megan Rapinoe

He also cites the growing trend for consumers to try on makeup virtually: “Instagram offers a face filter, so you can try on lipstick and then move your face to see how it looks. The benefit of 5G here will be more complex filters that you can download, as well as not worrying about the connection dropping at all.”

You don’t have to be Nike to take advantage — it’s good news for the smaller business owners, too. “The challenge for everyone will be to maintain the retail experience in-store because so much will be accessible elsewhere,” says Ray. “The really successful companies at the moment are the ones who’ve succeeded in building a community around their sales, and 5G won’t change that.”

A previous Gartner report estimates that by 2020, 46% of retailers plan to use either AR or VR to meet customers’ expectations of the shopping experience.

Lee explains why this makes sense: “People are lazy, they like immediacy, so if you can deliver an immediate experience that’s better than one which has a lag to it, you’ll have an advantage. For every second that you’re waiting for a page to load, you get people who give up.”

For big stores, this will also mean increased ways of harnessing customer information. Ray cites a retailer, such as Matalan, which already tracks our moves: “They know how long you spend in front of a certain rail, what things you walk past, how long you spend in changing rooms. They’re extremely good at using that information, but they’ll be better at it because there will be so much information coming their way.”

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