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Ashley Furniture taps VR, AR to deliver an innovative customer experience

The national brand is rolling out a consumer augmented reality app and an in-store virtual reality experience come 2017.

Ashley Furniture taps VR, AR to deliver an innovative customer experienceShown is the HTC Vive, which is one of the VR headsets that can be used on the Marxent platform. Photo courtesy of Marxent.

| by Judy Mottl — Editor, &

Ashley Furniture is building a custom augmented reality app and crafting an in-store virtual reality experience for debut in 2017.

The VR tool will let shoppers design a new room with the brand's furniture and virtually stand in the newly designed space while shopping at a store location. The app will let consumers 'place' Ashley furniture into the context of their own home to see how well it fits their needs and wants.

The advanced tech retail experience at the biggest furniture retailer in North America is being developed through a partnership with Marxent. The VR experience will be deployed to stores in select markets starting in the first half of 2017, and the AR app will be available for Android and iOS through the Google Play and Apple app stores.

The VR and AR strategy ties directly to meeting consumer expectations and the emotional and experiential process inherent in a furniture purchase, explained Keith Foy, VP of retail innovation for Ashley Furniture Industries.

"Most people buy new furniture once every five years or so, and it's a major purchase decision. When people understand what they're buying and know that it will fit their space, their taste and their lifestyle, then they are more satisfied with their purchases," Foy told Retail Customer Experience.

"The main goal of Ashley's AR/VR strategy is to bring our customers pleasure and ultimate satisfaction through a personal and convenient furniture shopping experience that helps customers to make better decisions faster."

Finding the right AR/VR tech partner

The brand partnered with Marxent due to what Foy called the "extraordinary composition, visualization and locational flexibility" of Marxent's VisualCommerce powered AR and VR apps.

Ashley is deploying Marxent's VisualCommerce platform for virtual products. The platform, Foy said, is the right fit for the brand's dynamic retail business and extensive product catalog.

"Their 3D content management system for configuring and managing smart virtual products powers augmented and virtual reality apps that are designed with retail and marketing in mind — to provide the maximum benefit for our customers and our business. And though they are an emerging tech company, they are also a family company like Ashley. Their company culture, values and personal service resonated with us. They are an ideal partner in that they have a long-term view beyond the tech itself to creating tangible value," said Foy.

The roll out strategy is ultimately a companywide experience with a measured deployment approach.

"Our goal with all retail technology deployments is to be focused on success through a managed roll out that allows us to learn as we go and to provides plenty of opportunity for educating our employees and store managers as well as our customers," said Foy.

Meeting customer expectations

Both the VR and AR strategies are tethered to customer expectations in the retail environment, explained Foy, as shoppers want a convenient and personal experience that is as good, or better, than what they enjoy on their smartphone.

"There was a time when it was hard to believe that people would buy a sofa without ever sitting on it or touching it — or even bringing swatches or samples home — but believe it. People are buying sofas this way and designing rooms using online design apps or low cost services. So they want to engage with tech that helps them to build confidence in their choices and to advance their decision making," said Foy.

The new technology is also letting Ashley boost the 'fun' factor in furniture shopping and empower customers by combining the tangible attributes such as textures, colors and personal assistance with digital design and visualization tools.

"It is something that Ashley is uniquely able to offer," said Foy.

Why AR, VR is grabbing more retail attention

That uniqueness illustrates how retail is increasingly relying on innovative technology, Beck Besecker, CEO and co-founder of Marxent, told Retail Customer Experience.

"Virtual reality and augmented reality are market ready and have achieved consumer acceptance, now it's about content and using the tech to start to solve real problems and build efficiencies. Retailers are often conservative when it comes to investing in new technologies. When you see a retailer like Ashley commit to AR and VR in such a major way, it's a sign that the future of retail relies on these technologies," said Besecker.

Retailers, noted Besecker, tend to fixate on hardware costs to provide innovative experiences but the focal point needs to be on content.

"Right now, we recommend retailers focus on high ticket items or components to create high margin assemblies with an eye toward adding smaller ticket items down the line. Also, as with any retail tech investment, the top consideration for retailers should be whether they are ready to invest in employee training and education," said Besecker, adding deploying “awesome tech in the middle of a store isn't enough." Retailers need to have a marketing investment internally and externally, he noted.

"The tech should be embraced and understood by the entire company from the sales floor up and the top down."

Retailers and misconceptions of VR, AR

One big misconception by retailers when it comes to leading-edge tools is they often believe it will be harder and take longer than initially expected and they often don't realize the additional opportunities such new tools offer.

"The truth is they can be up and running in less than six months. Also, there is a misconception that the application is more important than the content itself. What's beautiful about 3D content is that it is both dynamic and smart. Once products are virtualized, they can be repurposed in myriad ways, not just as content for a single app. For instance, they can be used to replicate a retail showroom experience — and the same content can be repurposed used in training and support applications," explained Besecker.

Judy Mottl

Judy Mottl is editor of Retail Customer Experience and Food Truck Operator. She has decades of experience as a reporter, writer and editor covering technology and business for top media including AOL, InformationWeek and InternetNews.

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