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Augmented Reality Set to Virtually Take Over High-Street Retailers

Many traditional brick-and-mortar retailers are turning to virtual reality and augmented reality in order to stay both relevant and competitive in the internet age, according to many exhibitors at this year's London Retail Design Expo.

Photo: Will the new retail reality be strategically augmented? (Shutterstock.com)
Will the new retail reality be strategically augmented?
Photo: Will the new retail reality be strategically augmented? (Shutterstock.com)
Will the new retail reality be strategically augmented?

The retail design world is undergoing a process of evolution as traditional modes of shopfitting are augmented by, or replaced with, new technology. This fact was much in evidence at the 2018 Retail Design Expo in London, Europe's leading event for retail designers, marketers, visual merchandisers and shopfitters.

The show saw the public launch of the Big Group Retail brand, a new venture from the London-based Big Group creative and digital agency, which sees it working with two existing UK design companies in a bid to offer services at the leading edge of the industry. Angela Anderson, Head of Marketing for Big Group, said: "The key takeaway is that we've got all these fantastic tech retail design people, but we've also got Big Group, which is a major creative digital agency. We're putting those two things together here, which is rather novel for the industry. We're all about delivering the future of retail technology through 3D, VR [virtual reality] and AR [augmented reality]."

This message even informed the design for the company's seemingly sparse stand at the show. Anderson said: "The stand itself is quite empty. Rather than having physical displays, using Apple AR kit and our own in-house development with Unity, we've created an AR portal so you walk around a virtual environment using an iPad. Outside the stand is a jungle, then you come in through the portal and you can see examples of all our work in the retail design space. It's a way of bringing it all to life."

Big Group Retail Account Director Jason Nash explained the technical details, saying: "In the retail design industry, predominantly we design in renders, which we then provide to clients in a 2D paper format. What we’re able to do now is to put those designs into a 3D VR world.

"We can do structured light 3D scanning of those designs. We're then able to see that whole area in a 360-degree scale environment in a 3D model, which clients can see in our VR lab. They can go in and interact with the design before we've built anything. They're able to see things that they wouldn't see on paper, which enables them to make changes, save money and put it into production instead."

Within the space of a year, Big Group Retail has begun working with some major international clients, including Samsung UK, Motorola, Hyundai, WH Smith and MasterCard. The company was also shortlisted for three industry Popai Awards, nominations for which were announced at the show.

Another product shortlisted for the Popai Awards was Flowbox, an animated lightbox for retailers from Kendu. The company’s Marketing and Strategy Director Loinaz Errezola said: "We offer in-store visual solutions. We have several new products, but Flowbox is one of our newest. On the front of the lightbox you have a printed graphic and on the back there's a TV, so you can use video animation to bring the image alive. We brought Flowbox onto the market last year and we've won several awards for it already."

Flowbox is the latest in a whole range of in-store retail products from Spanish-headquartered Kendu, which specialises in visual concepts, digital signage, 3D textiles and bespoke lighting systems.

One of the longest-established companies at the show was Momentum Instore, one of the UK's leading retail implementation agencies. Managing Director Rob Gleave said: "We install and merchandise all of the products that the other exhibitors here at the show are manufacturing. We go into stores and install, anything from field marketing through to principal contractor."

Photo: Kendu: Makers of the Flowbox animated lightbox.
Kendu: Makers of the Flowbox animated lightbox.
Photo: Kendu: Makers of the Flowbox animated lightbox.
Kendu: Makers of the Flowbox animated lightbox.
Photo: Lumo Tubo’s bendable lights in situ.
Lumo Tubo's bendable lights in situ.
Photo: Lumo Tubo’s bendable lights in situ.
Lumo Tubo's bendable lights in situ.

Momentum Instore has a very solid presence across Europe and has taken occasional contracts in the US. Further international expansion is always an option, but it's not an immediate priority for Gleave, who said: "Our philosophy has been about expanding at a rate that we're comfortable with. We've gone slowly and gained a great reputation with a number of retailers and brands across Europe. We're focusing our efforts on those markets, to ensure that we continue to offer them the best service that we can."

While recognising the impact of new developments, such as VR and AR, Gleave is certain that traditional retail design will continue to be important, saying: "We believe there will always be an in-store experience. People like to shop; they like to go into brick-and-mortar, a physical store as opposed to a virtual store. What many people will do is go into a store, see a product, touch it, feel it. Then they might go and order it online – that's what a lot of us do. But we feel that physical brick-and-mortar is still very important and there will always be a place for it.

"There are alternatives to simple brick-and-mortar, however. One of the most eye-catching stands at the show was for Re-board, an engineered cardboard product distributed in Britain by Manchester-based Oriam Green UK. Director Craig MacWilliam said: "Re-board is a fully styleable paper-based board. Unlike every other paper board, it has a unique structure that lets it support weight. It's got a liner either side of the core, which makes the form stable. The core will also let you cut it in ways that allow you to curve it or fold it, so you can manipulate it into all sorts of shapes and sizes. You can make it strong enough to park a car on."

Strikingly, the product had been used to create a large Star Wars-style spaceship suspended above the stand. MacWilliam said: "All we've used is sheets of our paperboard slotting into each other. There's no other product used here. With the other exhibition stands at the show, they would have had carpenters and painters on site and then they would have their branding people coming in, but there's only two of us. It's so easy to do, it's not worth bringing a crew. It just slots together with no mess, no screws, no painting, nothing."

In terms of the retail industry, Re-board has many applications in areas such as window display, shop-in-shop and exhibition. It has environmental benefits too, being mostly made from recycled materials and is recyclable after use. Oriam Green UK has handled distribution of the product to the UK, Ireland and the US since 2010.

Another fresh twist on traditional retail design came from Polish lighting company Lumo Tubo. Its product, also shortlisted for a Popai Award, has a unique feature. Product Manager Michał Bołtuć said: "We manufacture lighting tubes that are fully bendable. The tube has a memory – when you bend it once, it will remain bent – so you can achieve any shape that you want. We customise our products for customers' requirements, so if you have an idea in mind for some project, we can design and manufacture it for you."

The uses of this within retail design are obvious, but Bołtuć saw applications across a variety of sectors, saying: "The retail market is not the only one that we're interested in. For example, retail interiors, architecture and photography." Established five years ago in the city of Lublin, Lumo Tubo has been extending its business to European territories, particularly Italy, Spain and Germany. However, though eager to expand further in the international market, it doesn't have overseas partners or distribution at present.

Photo: Retail Design Expo 2018: Taking high-tech trade aids to the shop floor.
Retail Design Expo 2018: Taking high-tech trade aids to the shop floor.
Photo: Retail Design Expo 2018: Taking high-tech trade aids to the shop floor.
Retail Design Expo 2018: Taking high-tech trade aids to the shop floor.

Retail Design Expo 2018 was held at Olympia London on 2-3 May 2018, attracting more than 18,000 attendees, with 23% coming from outside the UK.

Catherine Jones, Special Correspondent, London

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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