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Let’s be honest, no one in their right mind goes to a Walmart simply to wander around the aisles and waste time. Granted, it’s easy to get lost in the cavernous halls of the supercenter, Walmart is not a place you go to casually shop or to check out what’s new and exciting. Shoppers are typically on a mission, looking that that one item or several items that they need so they can get in and get out. The retailer recognizes that, and they’re working to possibly correct that image through a really unique and potentially exciting retail technology venture.
According to a number of patent filings with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, reported on by Bloomberg, Walmart is looking to develop a “virtual showroom” and automated fulfillment system that would connect VR headset-wearing customers and sensor-packed gloves with a virtual representation of a Walmart store. By combining the VR technology with this retail software, customers would be able to strap on a VR headset, roam the aisles of this virtual Walmart, and actually “grab” items off of the shelves. Upon checkout, those items would be picked out and shipped from a fully automated distribution center.
A glimpse at Walmart's virtual shopping experience | Credit: USPTO filing
The move follows Walmart’s acquisition earlier this year of virtual reality startup Spatialand, a company that makes software tools for VR creators to turn their existing content into more immersive VR experiences. The company was moved into Walmart’s Store No. 8 incubator program.
The retailer has been aggressive in its tech push of late as it tries to keep pace with juggernauts in the space like Amazon, which is prepping an expansion of its cashierless store concept, and Google, which is on the verge of opening its first flagship retail location.
And while the thought of diving head first into a world of virtual shopping seems like a move that should be celebrated and viewed as innovative for Walmart, I’m left scratching my head and wondering: Is this something that the average consumer even wants? I mean, think about it. What could Walmart offer in a virtual reality-based store that would convince me I should strap on a VR headset just to roam the virtual aisles? Anything that I’d want to buy from a Walmart (which, in all fairness as a former Target employee is nothing) I would be content to make that purchase either in person, on my phone, or online.
As a consumer tech enthusiast, I trust that I’d at least give the VR shopping experience a try once or twice. But once the cool-factor wears off, what are we left with? VR technology that’s going to sit on a shelf and collect dust.
To me, the failing aspect of this type of VR retail venture boils down to a lack of awareness around who the model Walmart customer is: Mom. I thought the retailer missed the mark with the Jetblack program just a few months ago, and they seem to be setting themselves up for a repeat with VR shopping. I have a hard time understanding how, when, or why the working-class mom—or even the millennial mom at this point—is going to find time to immerse themselves in a VR shopping environment while they also have to keep an eye on the kids. VR is a time commitment, and I don’t see how the regular Walmart customer has the time to commit to VR shopping.
And it’s not like I’d ever let my kid walk around a VR store with free reign to purchase product that I can’t even see. At least at a store, if they throw some toy in the cart, I have a chance the rest of that shopping trip to sneakily remove it and leave it on some clothing table before they notice. In VR—forget about it. They could be checking out and spending my money and I wouldn’t even know it.
There’s also the question of access. Walmart must believe that enough of its customers have access to VR equipment—meaning headsets and sensor-packed gloves—too make this a worthwhile venture. However, according to some of the latest data from Global Web Index, just 4 percent of the online population owns a VR headset. We’ve had our own questions about the viability of the VR market, but even I didn’t think the numbers were that bad. VR is very much stuck in the early adopter phase with no real signs of picking up the pace. Cost and use cases still hold is market back, which presents a major problem if Walmart is banking its future retail technology on VR.
It’s OK to be a little excited about the prospect of a Walmart VR showroom, but I’d hold back on getting overhyped for this technology. While the retailer appears to be attacking a white space for this industry, maybe there’s a reason that white space was even there to begin with.