Walmart wants to take on Amazon with virtual reality shopping

“Where’s the snack aisle?”
“Where’s the snack aisle?”
Image: Reuters/Eric Gaillard
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Walmart, the world’s biggest company, is better known for cheap tube socks than its technical wizardry. But the company has thousands of developers plugging away in an airport-sized building at its headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, and has launched a tech incubator, Store No. 8, that is cooking up ways to combat rival Amazon.

One potential front in the retail battle is virtual-reality shopping. Walmart has applied for patents for intellectual property that creates a “virtual showroom,” according to Bloomberg. The technology would give home shoppers with VR headsets and gloves the ability to browse through a (presumably uncrowded and meticulously clean) virtual store, pick up merchandise, and instantly add it to a queue for home delivery.

In theory, the technology would appeal to those attracted to Walmart’s prices and want to handle merchandise before they buy, but who dread visiting its vast supercenters.

Walmart is already starting to thrive online. In 2016, the company spent $3.3 billion to acquire the e-commerce site and its CEO Marc Lore (paywall), who was charged with revitalizing Walmart’s online sales. Walmart has also diversified its assortment of goods available online with purchases of companies like Bonobos and ModCloth E-commerce sales surged 40% from last year in the quarter ending June 30, and the company says it expects to finish the year up 40% from 2017. Industry analysts attribute the success to the overhauling of its website.

AliBaba, the giant Chinese e-commerce site, debuted VR shopping with its Buy+ in 2016, and there are hints that Amazon is exploring the concept. But any VR retail strategy will need much wider adoption of headsets and home technology to become viable.

Walmart has made other forays into virtual reality. It uses a VR set to help prepare employees for the crush of Black Friday shoppers, and in February, bought Spatialand, a small VR developer. At the time of the purchase, the company was coy about its intentions for the technology. Now we’re starting to see what Walmart has in mind.