How extended reality is helping the high street fight back

Randy Ginsburg
November 7, 2023

The rise of extended reality has prompted new hope for high street retailers, with brick-and-mortar stores racing to implement new ways to reach their customers. Randy Ginsburg investigates the technology promising to transform how we shop.

If the 2010s was the decade in which extended reality failed to move beyond the tech fringes, then the 2020s is likely to be the decade in which it becomes embedded in our daily lives.

Once confined to niche gaming and experimental toys, extended reality (XR) tech is being quickly integrated into the brick-and-mortar retail stores of tomorrow.

Struggling for years, the malaise of physical stores is well-documented. Clothing brands like Tommy Hilfiger are hoping cutting-edge technology can reinvent the shopping experience and attract customers back to their stores. Aiming to compete with the e-commerce alternatives that have dominated the retail landscape, brick-and-mortar clothing stores are making a big bet on augmented reality, XR tech that can overlay clothing options on customers as they shop.

“AR lets brands create more emotional connections with customers.”

— Sophie Waldman, digital fashion consultant

Augmented reality entrepreneurs, focusing on layering digital experiences on top of the physical world, feel good about the 2020s. Being less adventurous than its virtual reality cousin, it’s augmented reality (AR) technology that will make the earliest impact in the shopping experience.

Snapchat expects 4 billion people to use AR tech by the decade’s halfway point, whilst research from Google suggests that there are real use cases for the fashion industry: the search engine giant reports that over two-thirds of shoppers would welcome augmented reality to better understand the products they’re buying.

Screenshots of Nike's AR shopping lens on Snapchat, which lets you customise shoes in real time and see how they look with a 360-degree view.

Offering virtual try-ons, digital showrooms, and social media filters, augmented reality gives brands the tools to create more immersive stories around their clothes. Earlier this year, Snapchat opened its AR try-on technology for retailers for use on their own branded platforms, beyond just on Snapchat. The tech is now used more than 250 million times a day.

“As AR fashion continues to evolve,” predicts fashion brand consultant Sophie Waldman, “AR will allow brands to better share their narrative, create emotional connections with customers, and tailor the customer-specific experience.”

Achieving that next level of customer experience will be aided by the fact that the tech has its complement in the real world, too. Brands like Tommy Hilfiger are deploying augmented reality tech in their stores, like AR mirrors which make it easy for customers to see if clothes match their style. The fashion brand uses augmented reality tech from Zero10, one of the many AR startups working to bring innovation to one of the world’s oldest industries: retail. 

Founded in 2020 by Crypus-born entrepreneur George Yashin, Zero10 in-store mirrors debuted last year in London, Milan, and Berlin with the Tommy x Shawn Classics Reborn collection.

The tech has been picked up in the Americas, too. Coach brought Zero10 to New York to create digital renditions of the iconic Tabby Bag. Animating a bag is a different challenge to animating clothes, which generally can be layered atop the image of the customer’s body. Using ragdoll physics animation techniques, visitors to Coach’s New York Soho store could move naturally with the bag in hand.

A customer tries out a Coach Tabby Bag in New York.

In particular, AR tech means more sustainability and more insights. Being able to try out a product virtually reduces return rates for ecommerce offerings and, with fewer products being returned, allows for more generous return policies to improve the user experience. In the long-run, that translates to less waste too, explains Anna Novichkova, Head of PR at Zero10. “It’s helped us quickly earn the trust of brands,” she adds.

The digital complement of virtual try-ons like this gives retailers more insight on consumer behaviour. It makes it easier to track which products consumers are interested in, as well as learning how much they are interested, judging from the amount of time spent trying on a particular item. Retailers are already using the data to get a better understanding of popular styles and to predict future trends, particularly because this kind of try-on data typically comes from stronger consumer intent, compared to when customers are just browsing.

“AR offers both convenience and excitement,” Sophie says, “allowing consumers to try out novel products both IRL and digitally from the comfort of their own home.” It shows: Zero10 claims that their AR mirrors have driven a 60% rise in foot traffic, though it’s unclear for how long that increase can be sustained.

“AR helped us quickly earn the trust of brands.”

— Anna Novichkova, Head of PR, Zero10

Currently, in-store AR activations are accessible only at a small number of locations. That’s more because most AR implementations are only in ‘trial’ stages, rather than any hardware or software obstacles, though Sophie suggests that the biggest potential of augmented reality for fashion lies on mobile. Whilst today’s smartphones can handle only limited AR capabilities and smaller screen sizes make virtually trying-on larger clothing items difficult, distributing through influential platforms like Snapchat or Amazon or through a brand’s own app represents an important opportunity to engage millions of customers in an exciting way.

Acknowledging this, Anna ultimately expects augmented reality headsets to “take centre stage” and provide a scalable AR experience that also maintains some of the “immersion” of visiting a physical store. “As more brands start leveraging AR tools across all mediums, more customers will discover the immersive experience that AR offers,” she forecasts. “It’s an incredibly exciting future for how we engage with fashion.”

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Randy Ginsburg
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Randy is the founder of Digital Fashion Daily and Third Wall Creative, a web3 marketing agency. Straddling the worlds of retail and emerging technology, Randy has worked with many companies including nft now, Shopify, and Touchcast to create compelling and educational web3 content. Previously, Randy worked at Bombas, developing the most comfortable socks in the history of feet.