Showrooming is a major challenge for many retailers. Augmented-reality software could help solve the problem... or make it much, much worse.
At CES 2013, I saw an interesting set of applications designed to make it easy for a customer to come into a store and explore different product offerings without ever entering a fitting room.
FaceCake provides the hardware and software that shows the customer his or her image on a television monitor, then dresses that image in whichever clothes and accessories the retailer would like to recommend.
As I watched a company representative go through a demonstration, I was struck by two things: First, it's pretty obvious that the clothing and accessory selection is computer generated and applied to the image. Next, it's pretty good as a first-level decision-making tool -- and it's almost certainly going to improve.
Here's how it works: A customer first goes about "registering" her body's location by moving her hands to cover selected spots on the screen. The customer then uses her hands and arms to control the selection of items through gestures interacting with object menus on the screen. The FaceCake spokeswoman gestured to scroll through menus of different clothing collections, selecting one after another to "try on" via the display.
With many of the clothing selections, the software suggested purses, scarves, and other accessories that could then be added to the outfit and modeled in a 360-degree view of the total ensemble. If the customer approves, the outfit can be saved and printed out for delivery by a sales representative. All-in-all, it was a fast, impressive demonstration.
Now, it's important to note that the clothng wasn't presented in Avatar-level quality. Some of the graphics were a bit blocky, but they allowed a reasonable view of what certain clothing lines and fabric patterns might look like when worn. For the retailer, it would let a customer quickly page through a set of possibilities and decide which outfits are worth spending the time to try on for fit and finished effect. It's a system that might well allow a clothing retailer to provide personalized service quickly to a large number of customers.
So far, so good. I was left with a question, though: Would some customers use the system for even more sophisticated showrooming activities? Would savvy shoppers use the tools to pick their best outfits and then search online for the best possible price?
That question gets to the heart of how retailers can use augmented-reality systems. There's no doubt that a retailer could use the system as part of a concerted effort to give personalized service to the customer. There's also very little doubt that many companies won't do that for fear that it will be used by bargain-hunting customers who ultimately make their purchase elsewhere.
There's a reason I feel such optimism about what a system like this could do for a retailer. That optimism is tied to the ways in which personalized suggestions could be improved through the use of applications such as the SAP personalized shopper app, which I also saw at the show.
The fact is that the tools are now being put into place to allow retailers to know their customers well, to tailor product and service offerings directly to the customers' interests, and to reduce transactional friction.
No doubt, some customers will take the suggestions provided by these sorts of systems and then look for the lowest-cost purchasing option online. Retailers would do well to look past that possibility and embrace technology that will allow them to build customer loyalty and increase the value of each interaction. With a proper dedication to customer service, the rewards for shoppers and retailers alike could be substantial.