Exploring the role of tech in physical retail

Caroline McDevitt, Senior Client Partner, Luxury & Retail at Snap, is an expert in consumer mindset. Here she explores how to bring retail to life in a whole new way in today’s world of bricks and clicks.

If you want some quick insight into how the retail landscape is moving into 2024, Google is your friend. A brief scan of headlines about the sector from the middle of this year paints a surprisingly positive picture. Behind all the doom and gloom about inflation, interest rates, geopolitical crises and supply chain disasters, there is hope. Not only do sources suggest that brands are still opening new physical stores, but formerly online-only retailers are starting to pop up – literally in the case of – on the high street.

ASOS is the latest online-only retailer to embrace a physical presence. Its pop-up outlet in London’s Soho not only featured a curated selection of some of its latest AW23 ranges as well as big names such as Nike and New Balance, it also offered some added value services. These included live music, DJ sets, workshops and freebies. All this cements the idea that retail isn’t just a place to shop, it’s an event.

But let’s not underestimate the power of retail basics done well. Even in the digital age, shoppers still want to see, touch and try out their purchases. Get them in the flesh, so to speak. It’s in the retailer’s interests too. Returns were estimated to account for 8.5% of total retail sales in 2023, a staggering $620bn – probably more.

Augmented reality (AR) Lenses have gone some way to reducing those rates in pure ecommerce but being able to gain the physical experience improves margins even further. Does this mean the innovations we’ve been fighting so hard to create over the past couple of years are now obsolete if shoppers are going ‘old school’?

Not at all. The merging of mobile and physical is bringing a best-of-both-worlds flavour to modern retail. From solving everyday annoyances such as queue boredom to extending the realm of the possible, tech is delivering for physical retail in umpteen new and creative ways.

Take ASOS again. The blowout bar was appointment-only so, for most visitors disappointment guaranteed, right? Not at all. Instead of getting the physical treatment, you could partake in a virtual styling, or make-up tutorial using AR. All of the knowledge to take away and try in the comfort of your own home. 

Then, there’s also the AR mirrors where people could see themselves featured on the homepage of the ASOS site.

Even in the queue, with the help of AR, social media and some 5G, you can pass the time and have a bit of fun with the brand. It isn’t just a distraction, it does bring shoppers closer to the brand and drive brand resonance because guess what, shoppers who care are shoppers who share, and they’re sharing that branded material with their friends.

To elevate AR though, it must have a purpose (not brand purpose, although that can’t hurt). What do you want in-store mobile tech to achieve? Are you looking to drive sales and reduce returns, or increase online sales from offline tasters? According to one of our most recent studies, 85% of shoppers think of AR as a utility, something that helps them discover products. Without it, part of the retail experience is missing.

Mobile has to fit seamlessly into the omnichannel. Driving the trying-on of multiple versions of a single style? Make sure the filters aren’t showing out-of-stock items otherwise frustration is a given. Does the app link seamlessly through to ecommerce and the correct landing pages? Basic admin, but vitally important.

And in-store WIFI. Is it a ‘one click and you’re online’ experience as the shopper walks through the door or do you gate-keep connectivity until they’ve given their inside leg measurement and the names of future grandchildren? Yes, gathering consumer data from WIFI is useful but if it’s turning off otherwise engaged consumers?

Intelligently deployed, the physical and virtual worlds have a lot to bring to each other. More importantly, the consumer wants – expects – to have both on tap. Understanding that the power of your retail brand is literally in consumers’ hands is a major step forward into the new high street retail reality.