Build.com launched an augmented reality feature for its iPhone shoppers that allows shoppers to interact with 3-D products such as turn on faucets and dim lights. Early results show good consumer use and potential sales increases, the retailer says.

Web-only home improvement merchant Build.com is building the foundation to make augmented reality an integral part of its future.

AR technology allows shoppers with smartphones souped up with depth-sensing cameras to view to-scale objects on the screens of their smartphones. After only a few months of having less than 1% of its SKUs available to view in augmented reality about 20% of Build.com shoppers who have access to the feature have used it and the retailer has had a bump in sales of those products, says Dan Davis, Build.com‘s chief technology officer. Those results have led the retailer to increase its AR budget by ten times, he says, noting Build.com is all-in on a 3-D future.

Dan Davis, Build.com's chief technology officer

Dan Davis, Build.com’s chief technology officer

“As a pure-play internet retailer, we see no better way of connecting with our customers,” Davis says. “We’re doubling down on this being a need to provide our customers. It’s a bet we are making.”

Augmented reality helps shoppers see how products look in the context of their home, Davis says.

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A hurdle for buying online is that a shopper can’t touch or feel the product. For products that shoppers place in their personal spaces and use daily, the hurdle is higher, Davis says about Build.com’s everyday products such as light fixtures.

Build.com has heard those sentiments from shoppers for years. In response, the web-only home improvement retailer has long worked to make it easier for consumers to envision its products in their homes, Davis says.

“Through better imaging, reviews, we’re trying to solve the challenge of having confidence that you are going to buy the right thing and you are going to like it,” Davis says.

We can make a big bet that this experience will be in the hands of many customers.
Dan Davis, Build.com's chief technology officer

In early 2016, Build.com discussed the value augmented reality could bring to Build.com. Around this time, Google began investing in its Tango augmented reality technology. Build.com held off on its augmented reality investment because the feature would only be on a few devices and not widely available to everyday consumers in the near feature.

In June, Apple Inc. launched its augmented reality software for app developers, ARKit. That meant augmented reality would be available in Apple’s iPhone 8 and iPhone X, and in its iOS 11 operating system, which is available to consumers with an iPhone 6s or later.

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The announcement caught Build.com’s attention, and the retailer decided this was the catalyst it needed to jump in to augmented reality.

“That makes us really excited being that Apple has a massive install base and that 75% of our customers are Apple-based. This is an exciting area and we can make a big bet that this experience will be in the hands of many customers,” Davis says.

Build.com became a launch partner with Apple Inc., which meant it had 10 weeks to get its augmented reality feature ready so it could be a featured app in the Apple App store when the smartphone hit the market. That also meant Build.com received feedback from Apple engineers about its feature, such as ideal user experience tips, which Davis says was “invaluable.”

Build.com added augmented reality into its year-old iOS shopping app, and has 37 unique products with 93 finishes available to view in 3-D. The products are mostly faucets and lighting fixtures.

Build.com also made the 3-D products interactive, so a consumer can get a feel for how the items function. For example, a consumer can tap a button on her screen to turn the facet on and the knob will move and the water will come out of the image on her smartphone screen. For lighting features, a consumer can see the light pattern a fixture will throw on the wall.

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Although 37 products is a far cry from the 850,000 in Build.com’s inventory, the retailer is being selective about which products it wants to model based on a few factors. For example, if a product has a high return rate, AR could perhaps decrease this rate by giving shoppers a more accurate look at the products they are getting before they buy it, Davis says.

Similarly, Build.com wants to model products in AR that have lower than average conversion online, but convert well at the retailer’s call centers. (Build.com has call centers that consumers call into to receive help decide on a product.) Premium products are also good candidates for augmented reality, as expensive items are often a considered purchase and augmented reality could help give the shopper confidence to buy it, Davis says. The same goes for heavy items, such as a bathtub.

Build.com has about 200,000 app downloads and about 75% of the downloads are active users are iPhone users. About 35% of its iPhone app users have the iOS 11 software on their device, which means only this group of shoppers, roughly 52,500, can use the AR feature.

Of the consumers with iOS 11, about 20%, or 10,500, have tried and are “actively using” the augmented reality feature, Davis says. Plus, consumers that have used the augmented reality app spend 300% more time in the app to now about four minutes, he says.

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Build.com has also noticed a “sales velocity” or an increase in SKUs sold of the products that are available in augmented reality, Davis says.

Davis says the number of shoppers who have iOS 11 and are looking at these 35 SKUs is too small to A/B test and draw an accurate conclusion from. “We can’t say definitively say this is an increase in conversion because the sample size is too small,” he says.

What the retailer is measuring is shopper use of the feature. “One of the major things we are looking at is engagement,” Davis says. “We want our customers using this feature.”

With time, Davis expects more consumers to adopt iOS 11, and with that more consumers to try AR. Even with this small base of potential shoppers, he is extremely happy with the level of engagement, he says.

“We’re so happy with it we are increasing our investment into our teams dramatically,” Davis says.

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While he wouldn’t reveal exact costs, the investment is more than $1 million, he says. Much of that comes from the employee time and cost, as the retailer has 10 people working on its engineering team, multiple dedicated 3-D designers, external contractors, plus it works with mobile app technology provider Prolific Interactive.

Build.com creates the 3-D products in a software CAD file, which Davis says is labor intensive but is key to makes sure that the retailer has the products dimensionally accurate, he says.

The retailer uses Apple’s SceneKit software developer kit for the product animations. The retailer also created a mathematical equation to determine how the light goes through glass to accurately represent the lighting fixtures. It takes anywhere from four to eight hours to create a 3-D product, he says.

Build.com isn’t only investing in AR because of the encouraging signs from consumers’ use of the technology, but also because of reactions from its vendors who are impressed and want their products modeled in 3-D, Davis says.

Build.com also is looking to see if augmented reality could fit into its other retailer experiences, such as its showroom for its other brands.

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