December 11, 2017

Can AR stem the tide of returns?

New augmented reality apps let shoppers virtually "try on" products from their phones.

By DC Velocity Staff

You may hate the hassle of returning merchandise, but retailers hate it even more. For them, managing a flood of returns means added work and added expense, with virtually no upside. But what if the technology from a popular smartphone game could help prevent shoppers from buying the wrong item in the first place?

In recent months, some of the industry's biggest e-commerce players have invested in augmented reality (AR), software that overlays digital images of an object onto the view seen through a smartphone's camera. The functionality has been around for years but shot to fame in 2016 when the Pokémon Go game gained popularity.

Last month, the cookware and kitchen décor retailer Williams-Sonoma Inc. spent $112 million to acquire Outward Inc., a San Jose, Calif.-based provider of 3-D imaging and AR tools that allow shoppers to peer through their smartphones and see what that new Vitamix Blender or linen tablecloth would look like in their very own kitchen.

The news came just a week after Inc. unveiled its own augmented reality app, a tool called AR View that lets online shoppers superimpose a 3-D rendering of certain products onto images of their own home or office. (You can view a demo at Amazon's website.) Retailers Ikea, Wayfair, and Houzz also have features on their mobile commerce platforms that allow shoppers to "see" how furniture and appliances from their catalogs would look in their own homes.

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