AR is Transforming ‘Try Before You Buy’: Here’s What You Need to Know

try before you buy

By Eero Martela, General Manager of digital sales consultancy Columbia Road

Once upon a time, the fitting room was a mainstay of “try before you buy”: a mixed experience that was problematic for fashion retailers, even before Covid and the dawn of social distancing.

In-store samples have been a thorn in the side of the beauty industry, too. Allowing a customer to test a lipstick or fragrance drives big conversions: but it also raises serious questions over sustainability and hygiene, particularly in the age of a global pandemic.

If Covid signals a step-change in how we preview products, however, technology is a must in this marriage of new realities. In particular, augmented reality (AR), which – after a slow start – is transforming the parameters of online retail, allowing consumers to preview products as diverse as ear studs, lighting or interior paint in their own homes.


From architects enhancing real-life objects with bite-sized snippets of information right through to digital inking apps like Inkhunter, which let people play with designs before committing to a tattoo, progressive brands are using AR to elevate their products in a digital-first age.

With return rates going through the roof, AR neatly sidesteps the barrage of issues caught up in unsatisfactory previews: and it ticks the boxes when it comes to germ- and waste-free sampling. Given the right infrastructure, consumers can try a product anywhere at any time – for a great experience that boosts retail’s bottom line.

The beauty of AR is that it can be embedded into the digital DNA of virtually any retailer, too. Here’s why and how you should break ahead with this tech tool in your armoury.

  1. Consumers expect retailers to deploy AR: Perhaps the biggest argument in favour of AR is that customers are getting used to it. Recent research by AR platform Poplar Studio found that 75% of customers now expect retailers to offer some kind of AR experience. The reason for this is that it works. By enabling customers to visualise and contextualise products, AR marks a fundamental step-change in the way consumers search for, compare and commit to online purchases. This is particularly true when it comes to shopping for eyewear – where driven by the pandemic – retailers such as Warby Parker are harnessing AR and iPhone face mapping features to help customers shop for glasses digitally. Elsewhere, luxury brands like Gucci have been particularly drawn to AR, viewing it as a way to reach out to young consumers via platforms they are familiar with, such as Snapchat. AR also helps consumers work out sizing – how will that new sofa look in my living room?
  2. AR elevates brand image and engagement: Savvy retailers have learned how to introduce AI into user experiences in fresh and imaginative ways. Take the newly revamped IKEA Studio app, which helps consumers design entire rooms in 3D, taking into account current furniture and measurements using iPhone sensors. This allows consumers to virtually upgrade their space with new IKEA pieces, colour schemes and light fittings. And it doesn’t end there – because the app also allows consumers to share their ideas with friends and family. Levi’s is another brand that is experimenting with AR-powered social experiences, utilising Squad, a screen-sharing app that allows friends to shop together. With AR also lending itself to Timberland’s virtual fitting rooms (getting someone in a fitting room makes them seven times more likely to complete a purchase). Likewise, an AR-led approach can show different variations of products without clogging up precious stockroom space.
  3. AR delivers data insights for future product enhancements: AR try-on solutions can also double up as data repositories for product development and optimisation. The Nike Fit AR App, for example, lets customers take a detailed scan of their feet to receive personal recommendations on ideal shoe fits and sizes. Since 60% of people walk around with incorrectly sized shoes, Nike is using AR to tackle a core issue in the gym wear industry, while also building an archive of very precise data learnings to optimise sizing in the future.
  4. AR is an affordable and future-facing solution: The tech underpinning AR has become cheaper and more widely available – which is why it is increasingly a preferred option to more immersive solutions like VR. Apple’s new Object Capture feature – which uses photogrammetry technology allowing 3D capture of static objects on any IoS device – is set to enhance AR’s appeal for retailers in terms of its accuracy and ease of use.  Because it works so seamlessly with mobile, AR will increasingly give retailers an edge in the post-Covid climate (or conversely leave those who cannot adapt behind). Undoubtedly, AR will accelerate alongside 5G rollout, so now is the time to act.

About: Eero Martela is General Manager of digital sales consultancy Columbia Road. Columbia Road enables brands to integrate AR solutions into their day-to-day structures, enriching the customer experience at multiple touchpoints. It has helped brands as diverse as L’Oreal and Marimekko maximise the profitability of their ecommerce operations.