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China technology

Retailers like JD.com try out virtual showrooms, augmented reality mirrors to boost sales

For high street retailers grappling with decreasing footfall and increasing rent, VR may help to cut costs and increase sales

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 May, 2018, 7:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 May, 2018, 8:10am

Long lines, harried sales assistants and frayed tempers are a common experience for shoppers during the sales season.

Now China’s biggest e-commerce companies are investing in virtual and augmented reality (AR) technology to make the shopping experience more pleasant.

On the retail side, JD.com has launched an AR beauty mirror that can show customers what different shades of lipstick or make-up would look like without actually applying them. The Beijing-based company is also introducing a 3D virtual fitting room that enables shoppers to “try on” clothes.

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“Shoppers have time limits and they can only make a decision after trying on several outfits or make-up products,” Zhao Gang, JD.com’s head of virtual reality and augmented reality development, said in an interview in Beijing last week.

And while the beauty mirror and 3D fitting room cannot totally replicate the experience of physically trying on the clothes – a “world-class difficulty” – they can “greatly improve the efficiency”, he said.

For high street retailers grappling with decreasing footfall and increasing rent, cutting down the fitting room queue and speeding up purchase decisions potentially helps to reduce the need for space and labour, while increasing sales turnover.

For e-commerce companies, the move is part of a broader trend toward combining the convenience and immediacy of the internet with the tactile experience of physical retail.

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On the wholesale side, Alibaba Group, parent company of the South China Morning Post, recently invested in Ordre, a virtual reality start-up that presents designer collections in online showrooms.

For Alibaba, this marks a further step in its efforts to combine retail with digitally-enhanced reality. Previously, Alibaba installed AR fashion mirrors in shopping centres during its annual Singles' Day shopping festival in China.

“I believe these products will become popular if they are developed well enough,” said Wang Yi Rui, a 27-year old teacher in Guangzhou. “I want to get out of the long queue outside of the fitting room.”

Even so, Wang said she would not buy clothes unless she can physically try them on first, as there is still a “big difference between virtual and real effects.”

JD.com’s Zhao agrees there is still some ways to go.

“Currently, neither the software development nor the hardware production can guarantee a real-life effect for virtual products,” said Zhao, who leads a team of about 100 on the company’s newly-established virtual business.

Digital mirrors or showrooms typically work by tapping on the touch screen display. Shoppers can see the effects of different make-up or clothes on themselves in seconds.

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Companies such as Shanghai-based Haomaiyi and Hong Kong start-up Actimirror are among those that have developed mirrors that double as touch screen hi-tech displays with AR features to provide personalised recommendations to shoppers.

Actimirror works with retailers such as cosmetics retailer Benefit in Hong Kong. Haomaiyi is collaborating with some merchants on Alibaba’s Tmall e-commerce platform.

Bricks-and-mortar retailers are increasingly looking to incorporate such interactive shopping experiences in-store to help boost fledgling sales as more consumers turn to e-commerce.

JD’s AR beauty mirror will appear in retail giant Walmart and Chinese cosmetics brand Carslan’s physical stores. The company is also working with companies including L’Oreal, Maybelline, Max Factor, Budweiser and Tsingtao Beer. The VR and AR device market is estimated to be worth US$1.8 billion this year, according to a report by CCS Insight.

“Enterprise adoption of VR and AR remains an important element and has encouraging potential” but it will “take many years to deliver meaningful volumes of sales” according to the report.