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Can't find your way around the supermarket? M&S has an app for that

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Marks and Spencer M&S augmented reality app groceries - Jamie Lorriman
Marks and Spencer M&S augmented reality app groceries - Jamie Lorriman

Marks & Spencer has become the latest grocer betting on augmented reality technology to win more customers, as competition heats up in the race to digitalise.

The 137-year-old retailer has rolled out an immersive product-finder app in a London store to replace the paper shopping list, in the hope of enticing shoppers.

It comes against a backdrop of traditional retailers attempting to fuse advancements in their online offerings with pricey high street properties, as well as keeping up with online-only rivals and on-demand grocers.

The move follows companies such as Walmart, Adidas and Asos that are exploring the use of augmented reality (AR). While some praise the new technology, questions remain over whether the retail sector’s AR race is anything more than a passing fad.

Users of the M&S app enter their desired product - or a whole shopping list - before being guided to the correct shelf in the store. Goods are ticked off once found. Customer trials are underway in its store in the Westfield shopping centre in west London’s White City and may be rolled out more widely depending on feedback.

Named List & Go, it has been developed by AR startup Dent Reality which describes the technology as “groundbreaking” and says it has increasing interest from major retailers keen to shake up the brick-and-mortar shopping experience.

Andrew Hart, chief executive of Dent, called it a "very surreal day" on Twitter.

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.

M&S public trial augmented reality app Westfield White City store - Jamie Lorriman
M&S public trial augmented reality app Westfield White City store - Jamie Lorriman

According to Dent Reality, the “world’s largest grocery retailers” are interested in its technology to drive revenue and customer loyalty. The company says its tech can gather data on customers’ preferences while they shop, helping it to recommend products based on search history.

Dent Reality argues that this gives staff more time to focus on other tasks, such as replenishing stock.

Richard Lim, chief executive of Retail Economics, is unconvinced, however.

“I do wonder whether or not this is over-engineering a customer journey that isn't necessarily that complex, and whether it's a bit too complex for shopping around. But what they should be applauded for is that they’re not standing still, they're experimenting and trying to leverage tech,” he says.

For M&S, the decision to roll out the tech in a food hall follows record food sales over the Christmas period - up 12.4pc to £1.9bn on pre-pandemic levels. Fashion revenues were up 3.2pc to £1.1bn on pre-Covid levels, having weighed the retailer down in recent years.

While the retailer plans to close 120 clothing stores by 2024, its food division has been boosted by Ocado. Sales on the online grocer, which it half-owns, accounted for around 30pc of baskets in December. M&S has also noted larger basket sizes and a trend towards more everyday shopping at its food outlets.

AR, however, is far from the only attempt to modernise its stores. It is trialling a digital programme at outlets in White City, Kew, Harrogate, Epsom and Bristol’s Cribbs Causeway, which includes a service connecting online customers with in-store staff via video calls for advice on purchases. In-store QR codes, meanwhile, can be scanned to find where a product is located, be it in stores or online.

Sacha Berendji, the group property, store development and IT director at M&S, says:

“Over the last 18 months we’ve seen an increased customer use of digital, interactive shopping – whether that’s payment methods or QR code based solutions in-store.

“During this time we’ve launched a wave of new initiatives to make shopping at M&S quicker and easier for customers.”

As retailers test the popularity and usefulness of AR, it remains to be seen if the technology will engrain itself in shopping culture - or become a thing of the past.

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