But, as with much new technology, there are teething problems. The app is only available on iPhones so far and only works when connected to the store’s WiFi. And, in a demonstration in the store on Wednesday, it failed to identify an item in the vegan range.
Many shoppers in Westfield’s M&S Food Hall seemed content shopping without any additional tech.
One such customer, Lisa Bell, tried using the app to direct her from the entrance to the porridge. She argues: “It’s only necessary for a very large store, [not] if you know your local one.”
The retiree says she would be less keen on using it for her entire shopping list. “I don’t know if I’d want to, I’d want to be looking at everything else. When I was working I think I’d want to be using it more because of being in a hurry, but now I’d want to browse.”
But Romario Morris, another customer, found it “really beginner-friendly, simple and easy to understand” while collecting pork, vegetables and pizza, especially as he did not know the store layout.
The onset of the pandemic has only accelerated the digitalisation race. Clothing retailers including Adidas and Gap have experimented in AR fitting rooms – a method that a quarter of UK consumers said they were open to trying, according to a Contentsquare survey last year – while Asos has rolled out a virtual catwalk feature to showcase product lines.
Amazon’s “room decorator”, meanwhile, allows customers to see how furniture and other homeware will look in their own space before buying, similar to a ‘virtual sofa’ scheme tested on the John Lewis app.
Other major firms include Burberry, Apple and Royal Mail, which has used AR to determine the right package size on smartphones.
Retail analyst Richard Hyman believes AR and related tech will grow as a feature in stores over the next two years: “Smart tech is going to be a really important way for retailers to defend the enormous investment that they’ve made in their brick and mortar retail.”
When it comes to grocers, Sainsbury’s created an easter egg hunt app for children in 2019, keeping them entertained while their parents shopped.
But Walmart has led the charge, embracing AR to strengthen the appeal – and efficiency – of its vast physical stores.
Last year it introduced the Me@Walmart app for its staff at more than 3,500 stores. It slashed the time taken to identify new stock in the back room from two and a half minutes to 42 seconds, by using the technology to scan computerised IDs on packages. Shelves are then stocked quicker. Given some of Walmart’s outlets have 120,000 items, it has come in handy.