3D augmented reality will change furniture shopping for everyone, eventually

Impediments to buying furniture without seeing, touching or sitting in it include a simple lack of confidence. If the purchase is being transacted online, the anticipated difficulties of returning the piece if it’s damaged or not quite what the consumer wanted or expected also lead to abandoned shopping carts. 

No matter how awesome the retailer is, customer satisfaction often depends also on last-mile logistics companies that, in my experience, often demonstrate little regard for what might be in the box and, therefore, a lack of care the item requires. I have the photos to prove this. 

While there’s little I can recommend to ameliorate the logistics challenges, on the confidence front, it’s clear to me that 3D augmented reality has potential. After attempting to reliably find and use 3D AR, however, it’s also clear that we’re quite a distance from visualization nirvana. A news article on 3D animal imagery accessible via Google got my attention. Intrigued by the idea of manipulating sophisticated 3D images of big game safari animals, I immediately saw an analog in furniture. 

After reading the article, though I have never seen elephants or giraffes in the wild, I expected that with Google Search AR I could readily see both in vivid 3D. Similarly, I thought I could just as easily view a high-end armoire or credenza in its natural habitat using the same technology. The article promised all of this would be quite simple. It was not. 

A second article, linked to by the first, coincidentally trumpeted the fact that Ikea, Amazon and Wayfair have made their product lineups viewable in precisely these ways. However, after running at least a dozen searches, only one turned up any imagery in 3D, and that item was a fairly uncomplicated wood frame arm chair. 

A relentless search for an Ikea chair rendered in 3D and accessible via Google Search finally turned up this $280 Vedbo chair. The “wow” factor for the 3D feature proved decidedly underwhelming.

I expect that this will change, and I suspect that were I using any device with Android, my Google experience likely would have been far more fruitful. As evidence, the number of “frequent AR users” is expected to grow 4.3 billion in 2025 from 1.5 billion today, making the widespread adoption of 3D AR a question of when, not if.

I smell potential

As Home News Now contributor Michal Stachowski recently discussed, this technology isn’t just for e-commerce players. Brick-and-mortar retailers have for decades turned to kiosks, iPads and other 3D tools and software to give customers a way of browsing furniture items missing from that particular showroom’s floor or warehouse. 

As Stachowki, co-founder and chief visualization officer at Intiaro, pointed out, more than four of every five retail shoppers begin their quest online and more than half of all in-store sales are influenced by digital interactions. 

So, the game changer with respect to Google Search AR will be putting this robust technology within reach for most if not all retailers, be they online or strictly in-person, and their customers, particularly for those customers shopping at home. Google announced at its I/O conference four years ago that it would be adding AR objects to its search function, starting with those 3D safari animals. Subsequently, Ikea announced earlier this year the addition to Google’s AR search findings of its full product catalog, or more than 10,000 products. 

However, I ran several searches of specific Ikea items by name — by their very Swedish names — and turned up nothing in 3D. I used Safari on a Mac laptop running Ventura, which is to say all that Google says I need to get full AR results.

Of course, I could access the full Ikea catalog from my phone using the Ikea Place app introduced in 2017. But like many iPhone users, particularly older iPhone users, I very reluctantly download apps. I don’t like surrendering private information. I don’t like unwanted debris floating around in my phone. I don’t want too many cooks in my kitchen. Google Search AR would avoid all of this. 

If Google is to be believed, its AR search functionality isn’t just for the heavy hitters. A year ago, Google packaged the new search features as part of its Google Marketing Live program. Visit this Google subpage, then scroll down to No. 3,“Empowering customers to see products in real life through AR.” You’ll see a link to Google’s “Manufacturing Center.”

Ikea’s U.S. expansion

Speaking of Ikea, in the past few weeks, the Swedish furniture giant has made headlines with its expansion plans for the United States, announcing a three-year, $2.2 billion allocation to bolster its retail presence. After the recent news of the bankruptcies of Bed Bath & Beyond, Tuesday Morning and Bath & Body Works, among so many other store closings, Ikea’s expansion plans come as sharp relief. 

The biggest expansion plan yet by Ikea for the U.S. market calls for eight big box stores, nine studio stores and 900 pickup locations to open in the next 36 months, according to the company. To support these locations, Ikea will also strengthen its fulfillment network, particularly in the South. 

“The U.S. is one of our most important markets,” said Tolga Öncü, head of the Ingka Group, via a statement. Ingka Group is Ikea’s largest retailer, with stores in 31 markets representing approximately 90% of Ikea’s retail sales volume.

“More than ever before, we want to increase the density of our presence in the U.S., ramp up our fulfillment capacities and make our offer even more relevant to local customers’ needs and dreams,” Öncü said.

The Ingka Group announcement did not include specific locations, but we know that as early as this summer an Ikea superstore will open in San Francisco and one of the studios will open in Arlington, Virginia. The Ikea store count in the United States prior to these planned openings is 51. 

The retail apocalypse has hit San Fran especially hard, underlining Ikea’s potential impact on that area. With the new locations, the United States likely will supplant Germany as Ikea’s largest single market.

Ikea U.S. recently reported its fiscal 2022 sales at $5.9 billion, which includes a nearly 20% increase in online sales.

Brian Carroll

Brian Carroll covered the international home furnishings industry for 15 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He chairs the Department of Communication at Berry College in Northwest Georgia, where he has been a professor since 2003.

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