Is AR shopping for life or just a gimmick for Christmas?

Covent Garden’s augmented reality experience aims to bring shopping bang up to date – but is it worth the hassle?

I’m not one to ‘go’ shopping these days. Ocado does a good job of keeping me fed and ASOS at keeping me warm. Amazon sorts out anything miscellaneous in between.

A few clicks save me from lugging a basket or queuing for a fitting room which, by default, will be so cold I won’t want to brave undressing. If I get lost online, Google directs me toward the perfect place where I can browse for the perfect product in a perfectly filtered price-range. And, at this time of year, avoiding the hordes of Christmas shoppers is always a bonus.

So why am I heading to the stores of Covent Garden (hazelnut praline hot chocolate in hand) to be met with a flurry of lunching businessfolk and tourists holding their smartphones up to the 50ft Christmas tree? Well, dear readers, this isn’t any ordinary pine and nobody is taking selfies.

Augmented reality (AR), technology which integrates digital images and other enhancements with phone or computer users’ view of the real world (Pokemon Go! is the most famous example), has taken over this year. 140 Christmas-ready stores and restaurants – from Paul Smith and Kiehl’s to Balthazar – are out to prove how tech-savvy they are by partnering with visual discovery app Blippar. The one million sq ft shopping destination claims to be the largest AR showcase anywhere in the world.

Grimacing like the Grinch, I push through the crowd and whip out my smartphone, pointing it at the tree to check what all the fuss is about. The app immediately hijacks my camera and the Christmas tree comes to life on-screen. Several 3D gift boxes hove into view, popping as I tap each one to reveal discounts and offers at participating stores. The gamification of retail – fun, I suppose, but I’m not sure this is enough to convert me back to offline shopping quite yet.

Rudolph runs amok in Covent Garden

Rudolph runs amok in Covent Garden

Blippar’s chief operating officer Danny Lopez tries to convince me otherwise. “It’s such an incredible futuristic step for the retail industry,” he says, leading the way to a tinseled Ted Baker. “We’ve seen the transition from retail to digital purchasing but now we are bringing the digital back into stores.” He then adds, somehow managing to keep a straight face, “What better time to do this than at Christmas when magic is, quite literally, in the air.”

A smiling shop assistant welcomes me and I try to remember the last time I actually purchased an item in the flesh. Within moments, my eyes are strategically drawn to a navy velvet blazer and a black dress. Both are adorned with supersized ‘blippable’ swing tags meaning a top magazine style editor handpicked them for this festive AR takeover. I play ball and join two excitable teens to blip the LBD, resulting in said editor’s fashion tips filling my phone screen – girly guff about the “floral crochet design” and “modest neckline” pops up. I would look as “pretty as a picture” in this at the work Christmas party, apparently.

I quickly realise I’ve being hooked in because I’m genuinely curious to see what else is on offer. I blip the blazer to be in the know – will it be discounts or catwalk videos I find? Before long I’ve been in and out of a dozen stores accumulating several shopping bags along the way.

“See!” Danny exclaims. “We are creating immersive experiences to make shopping fun and engaging. It’s a whole new way of browsing and connecting with consumers, which I guarantee will keep people off the sofa.”

We walk through the piazza and stop in front of a building site where the new Sushi Samba restaurant is under construction. I spot a Rudolph poster on the scaffolding which groups of people – mainly adults – are blipping. Holding my phone up to the still image, I watch as a 3D reindeer jumps on my screen before flying through the sky.

Danny bids me farewell, but I’m sticking around. There are more bargains and run away reindeer to be found. Maybe elbowing your way through the Christmas crowds might be worth the hassle, after all.


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