This is what the future of shopping could look like, according to Cornell scientists

Even if you hadn’t already made the switch before, chances are you’re doing most of your shopping online these days. COVID-19 has forced everyone to do pretty much everything remotely, and online retailers like Amazon and Walmart’s online division have seen big boosts in traffic and sales. For some items, like books or video games, making purchases online is fairly straightforward. When it comes to clothes, though, online shopping can be a bit more complicated.

It’s happened to everyone at some point; you see a shirt or jacket that looks great online, and quickly place an order. But, once it arrives your excitement is quickly extinguished by disappointment. It doesn’t fit! In many instances, it takes more than one round of ordering and returning before the right size is finally found. A surprising recent survey even found that most online shoppers end up returning 70% of the clothes they purchase.

What if there was a way to “try on” online clothing items before making a purchase? It sounds impossible, but according to a new research project just released by Cornell University, an augmented reality (AR) tool that allows shoppers to see themselves wearing clothing items they’re considering purchasing can simultaneously cut back on returns and make shoppers more likely to press that “buy” button.

Nothing is going to be quite like walking into a store in person and trying some clothes on, but augmented reality can seriously improve the efficiency of online shopping in general, and satisfaction levels among consumers. The “hands-on” experience that such technology can facilitate will greatly reduce the number of orders that have to be returned and then replaced with a different size, a practice referred to as “bracket shopping” by the study’s authors.

“Bracket purchases increase shelving and shipping costs,” explains Fatma Baytar, assistant professor of fiber science and apparel design and director of the Body Scan Research Group, in a university release. “We’re hoping these technologies can reduce those costs, while also decreasing the carbon footprint associated with return shipping.”

The actual research behind this study was conducted a few years ago, back in 2016, but the study’s authors decided to release it now due to increased interest in online shopping caused by COVID-19.

Today, just like four years ago, there are two main avenues of using advanced technology to improve the online shopping experience. The first involves an avatar, or virtual recreation of oneself specified according to provided sizing details. Shoppers can try on clothes with their avatar to get a better sense of what they like. The second avenue, and the approach that researchers focused on, is augmented reality. AR entails using a desktop computer, phone, or tablet as a simulated “mirror” that projects chosen clothing items onto shoppers so they can see how the items look on them.

So, for the research, a group of volunteers was asked to virtually try on a dress using AR technology, make a purchase afterward, and then see if the dress fit as well in person. More specifically, participants were asked to rate and compare the AR and real dresses based on size, fit, and performance.

Overall, participants reported liking and appreciating the AR technology, but it was far from a flawless experience. While AR did help most shoppers find the right size for their dress, it still proved difficult to evaluate the dress’ fit (hips, bust, waist) based just on AR. But, some of that is to be expected; augmented reality or not, the image shoppers were provided with was still two-dimensional. Moreover, the dress’ hourglass shape didn’t perfectly fit some participants’ body types.

As far as other aspects of the dress; feel, weight, comfort, etc, the AR tool didn’t prove to be particularly helpful. That being said, volunteers said that the AR representation did give them a better idea of the dress’ colors.

All things considered, the AR improved volunteers’ shopping experiences and helped them pick the right size. There is room for improvement, but just like any other technology nowadays, AR technology will certainly do just that: advance and improve its capabilities at a fast rate.

“Attitudes to the AR garment and the real garment were really high, which means the participants liked it and their purchase intentions were relatively high, though they were higher for the real garment,” Baytar comments. “This is still a promising technology because AR can provide good visual information that improves consumer attitudes and purchase intentions. We think a company could use this technology to create a buzz when introducing a new style.”

Interestingly, the study’s volunteers also indicated that just being placed in an interactive, virtual shopping environment made the entire experience more engaging, and made them that much more willing to make a purchase in the first place.

“The technology we used was limited, and even four years later the technology still needs to be improved,” Baytar concludes. “We can expect that as these technologies evolve, people will trust online shopping more, they will trust that they will get the right size that fits them and will look like it did on the screen.”

AR-based online shopping may just be the new normal in the retail world come 2025 or 2030. You’ll still have to leave your house to fully show off all those new clothes, though.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management.