Augmented reality always has a barrier to overcome: the user must first download an app. Then, the user must activate that app at the appropriate time, in interactions with tagged objects – it’s not as if people are walking around holding their smartphones out in front of them, navigating via the camera and screen in their hands.
The app and its functionality, then, must be compelling enough to prompt downloads. If the functionality is limited, it has to be so useful or so fun that mobile users can’t resist fetching it. More frivolous apps can overcome the barrier by being useful in more than one situation.
Yihaodian, China’s largest online retailer, is going with the first strategy. The app definitely fills a useful need – shopping for groceries – but it’s a task customers can already complete in a supermarket or online. Yihaodian’s twist is creating 1,000 virtual stores literally out of thin air; when customers are in an area designated as a virtual supermarket, they can select items “around” them and have them delivered to their homes.
Why use Augmented Reality when online shopping can realistically be done from anywhere? There are advantages for Yihaodian, certainly; foremost among them is publicity. Marking public spaces as virtual shops only increases the visibility of the brand.
But do consumers actually benefit? There’s certainly the novelty of shopping in a new way to excite shoppers. Virtual stores combine the experiences of online and in-person shopping, making the shopper move around to gather items but still providing the convenience of delivery to one’s door. The virtual shops are also located in places where customers are likely to be traveling already, like subway stations.
Amazon bears the most resemblance to Yihaodian of any company in the U.S. It’s a safe bet that they’re watching the virtual supermarket experiment in China to see if it might be viable here.