HOW DO you try something on without picking it up? That's the Zen-sounding dilemma confronting luxury brands in the internet age, as they struggle to replicate the in-store experience on their websites. Their latest weapon is augmented reality - technology that takes scenes from the real world and superimposes effects such as graphics and sound over them in real time.
French jeweller Boucheron and Swiss watchmaker Tissot have recently launched augmented-reality applications on their websites, allowing potential customers to try items on virtually. It works like this: log onto the website, download a small piece of software, then print out a drawing of the item you want to try on from the site. Cut out the watch, ring or whatever, wrap it around your wrist or finger, and an image of you wearing the real thing will appear on your screen.
And, in a move that combines window-shopping with 'Windows-shopping', Tissot's version is also available on touch-screen window displays through a partnership with British department store chain Selfridges' flagship in London. Shoppers walking past the store are given paper wristbands that they can use to interact with the window display, allowing them to virtually try on any of 28 models from Tissot's T-Touch range.
Luxury brands have traditionally been wary of websites that go beyond brochureware. It's pretty obvious why: the brands themselves will tell you that the service and in-store experience are among the things that set them apart from the crowd. Online, it's hard to recreate the 'boutique mystique' they aim for; you can put as many pretty pictures up as you like, but it's never going to be like visiting a brand's lavishly appointed, seductive store.
'I think it is possible to have a branded experience online,' says jewellery merchandising consultant Sally Furrer, a former vice-president of marketing for US engagement-ring giant Robbins Brothers. 'However, I do think that manufacturers and brands should have very specific criteria if a retailer wants to sell their product online, in order to create a consistent brand experience. Today I think the consumer has the expectation to be able to view or buy almost anything online, and the jewellery industry has to meet that need.'
Applications like these give high-end brands the chance to address one of the key merchandising challenges of the future: how to give online shopping that personal touch. 'Boucheron uses this technology to create emotions,' says a company spokesperson. 'If the client likes a product, he or she can now try it on from home and experience the same emotions as when trying on a product in a boutique. Our aim is to answer to our clients' needs before they even create a need for it.'
For Furrer, however, the technology represents a long-overdue toe in the water. 'Although it's entertaining, I don't think it will give the consumer the assurance that they truly know what the ring feels and looks like,' she says. However, she adds, the chance to reinvent themselves online could be jewellers' saving grace - precisely because they often fail to create the in-store ambience they're aiming for. 'Jewellery stores are often very intimidating to many shoppers. That barrier needs to be eliminated, and once the shopper enters the store, the experience needs to be fun: casual, yet informative. Retail jewellers are actively losing their clients to the internet. Consumers still crave a true in-store experience, but rarely get it.'