Augmented reality (AR) is a clear example of the need to balance technological innovation with human experience. AR has a wide variety of potential applications, from allowing consumers to virtually try on clothes or see how products fit within their own homes, to enabling employees and designers to better explore product features. As the technology improves, these features have multiple possible implications, such as reducing the need for on-site stock, encouraging more engaging online and at-home shopping, and even ultimately reducing product returns.
In fact, at a recent panel on supply chain challenges at the Retail Leaders Forum, part of the discussion focused on how AR might ultimately help alleviate many of the current supply chain delays. Bill Gates even recently tweeted a photo of himself reviewing prototypes of emerging AR technologies, which many presumed indicated future (or potentially current) investment involvement. Some commenters even predict AR (rather than VR, or gaming consoles) will be the key to unlocking the metaverse.
Yet, as we wrote about at the end of 2020 for Inside Retail, when we research the human experience of AR, the realities are not all positive. Based on our research with consumers, we discussed that there are indeed benefits such as allowing consumers to trial a wider variety of products and generally being a fun experience. However, we also found aspects that can hinder the customer experience, such as increased cognitive dissonance, negative reactions to technology in general, and even the potential mitigation of valued brands.
Since then, we have continued to explore the ever-evolving world of AR through the lens of customer (i.e. human) experience. With our colleague Professor Sean Sands, we recently published the results of a follow-up study*, this time exploring how different consumer segments vary on their attitudes toward AR as a virtual shopping tool. We found that while retailers and researchers like us tend to talk about the exciting potential of AR, many consumers do not share our optimism. We’ll share our results and then summarise what this might mean for retailers below.
What we did
To explore how consumers may differ on their attitudes towards AR, we conducted an online survey with 503 participants – a sample size that provided sufficient statistical power to be relatively confident that our results will be applicable to a broader population. Our survey asked respondents about their general experience with AR in shopping situations (57.9 per cent reported some experience with AR), and then a suite of questions related to attitudes and experiences of AR. These included measures of how easy AR is to use, whether using it added confidence to a purchase decision, whether it increased or decreased information overload, how it effected their purchase decision, and even psychological factors like innovativeness and price consciousness.
To make sense of all this data, we used a method called Latent Class Analysis, which is a type of segmentation method which can account for multiple factors simultaneously. It also allows us to both identify consumer segments and explore what causes individuals to belong to one segment or another, at the same time. Through this analysis, we were able to define four distinct customer segments. The segments with a greater positive attitude toward AR also recorded higher experiential value and decision confidence, and lower perceived information overload. We called these AR Enthusiastic (segment size 14 per cent), and AR Open (segment size 39 per cent). Segments with a less positive attitude toward AR had lower experiential value and decision confidence, and higher perceived information overload. We called these AR Hesitant (segment size 32 per cent), and AR Averse (segment size 12 per cent).
The first thing to notice is that consumers who are AR Enthusiastic make up only a small proportion of the population – less than 1 in 6 consumers. This means that for all the potential that AR has, consumers are not nearly as excited about the technology as we (retailers and researchers) are. In fact, a large proportion of consumers (almost half) are at best Hesitant towards AR, or at worst actively Averse. These results confirm a major point for retailers we have been talking about recently. The potential and technical capabilities of a technology are not enough to focus on. We must understand the experience consumers have with a technology, and how this may differ across individuals and consumer segments. Thankfully, our results point to a few areas retailers can work on to improve the human experience of AR, and broaden its appeal.
Ease of use and usefulness are key
The two core pillars of the commonly used Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) — perceived ease of use and perceived usefulness — are just as important in AR as they are across other technologies, our recent study showed, as they both play an important role in how consumers form perceptions of AR. This means that you should focus on ensuring that AR is easy to use, while also useful, for the shopping purpose.
Whilst this may seem intuitive, there is a fine balance to be struck between the benefits AR can bring, and the effort required from consumers. For example, allowing consumers to upload a digital scan of themselves to create a life-like avatar may increase the usefulness of AR, but at the same time requires more effort from consumers themselves, making the technology less easy to use. So ask yourself what sort of balance consumers are looking for within your sector? Importantly, can you cater to the different preferences across consumer segments? Can you offer different AR options with some easier to use, while others offer more advanced features?
Price consciousness vs stylistic choices
One of the other interesting findings of our study is that unlike other technologies, price consciousness is not a distinctive feature of different AR consumer segments. While price conscious consumers tend to preference other technologies, particularly online search and mobile apps, the same doesn’t happen with AR. For retailers, this implies that AR might not be as useful in shopping situations that are predominantly underpinned by price comparisons, and may instead be more useful in categories that have more qualitative evaluations (i.e., style, colour, etc) rather than price comparisons. This makes sense given the inherently visual and sensory nature of AR, and the current applications where it’s been applied. The main benefits of AR lies with you assisting consumers to ‘try’ products in digital ways. Ultimately, this helps consumers focus on the stylistic components of products, over price and even brand name.
Improving AR attitudes and experiences
While we noted that overall AR attitudes among consumers were more negative than we expected (with the exception of a small enthusiastic segment), these perceptions were also malleable. We noted that after we showed consumers more information about the benefits of AR technology, and practical use cases, consumer attitudes towards the technology increased. This occurred even in those segments who were initially averse towards the technology, albeit to a lesser extent than those who were already more open. This shows us and retailers that consumer attitudes toward AR are not fixed, but can be improved by education with experience.
Hence, there is an opportunity for retailers to better educate consumers on the value and benefits of AR. This could lead to more consumer openness to use the technology and reap its potential benefits such as shopping experience, better decision making, and hopefully even less need for product returns.
Hence, our key message to retailers is this: remember that it is how your consumers experience AR that really matters, not what you, your design teams, or even researchers like us think of it. Many consumers are open to AR but still need to be convinced of its value to them as shoppers. Showing consumers the benefits AR could bring to them, and making those benefits easy to access, are ways to encourage them to trial the technology and have a better experience when they do.
*The paper is titled “Virtual shopping: Segmenting consumer attitudes towards augmented reality as a shopping tool ” and appears in the International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management.