Walmart says its acquisition of a virtual reality platform and content studio is meant to explore the possibilities of VR in retail, but the retail giant has been relatively quiet about its plans otherwise, saying only that it wants to “develop new product exploration through immersive retail environments.”
In an email, a rep said that since its new portfolio company, VR shop Spatialand, is “still in stealth,” there aren’t “a lot of details we’re sharing at this point” other than what Store No. 8 principal and Spatialand interim CEO Katie Finnegan noted in her blog post. The rep added that “we’ll be building on the learnings and experience Store No. 8 and Spatialand developed for [VR showcase] Innov8 last summer.”
There are, however, some clues about Walmart’s VR plans—from its own collaborations and statements, as well as existing shopper behavior.
Per Finnegan’s October 2017 LinkedIn post, Spatialand and Walmart previously worked together to create a VR experience at a campsite in Yosemite National Park in which consumers could try outdoor products like tents, “entering the space and judging its size and ease of setup to ensure it is the best product for the customer’s needs.”
“By allowing shoppers to pitch a tent at a campsite in Yosemite National Park, or cast fishing rods in the lakes and ocean environments they are designed for, VR gives consumers specialized situational experiences with the products so they have the utmost confidence in their purchase,” Finnegan added in the post.
Enhanced product testing like this is one of the ways Finnegan noted VR could make shopping better. The others she listed include creating interactive, multidimensional ecommerce experiences with photorealistic 3-D images of products; creating experiences that provide meaningful social interactions; and anticipating consumer needs and establishing trust with immersive educational experiences that also provide relevant product recommendations.
In a December 2017 blog post, she also pointed to the not-so-distant ability to shop in a virtual setting.
Joe Migliozzi, managing director at media agency network Mindshare’s Shop+ unit, which focuses on applying data to shopping behavior, agreed there’s an opportunity to create a virtual store with VR in which consumers can fill their carts and have orders delivered or scheduled for pickup.
For his part, Wilson Standish, director of innovation at data-driven marketing agency Hearts & Science, noted a large portion of Walmart sales come from online orders with in-store pickup, which could also demonstrate Walmart’s customer base does not feel fully comfortable shopping online in a standard way.
“Walmart should know that there is a lot of education and comfort growth that needs to happen to get people to buy in a VR store,” he said. “But by owning the tech, they can help push the comfort level forward and reap the rewards.”
Dave Mayer, president of shopper-focused design firm Chase Design, said there are two types of Walmart shopping trips: replenishment, in which a customer runs out of a given product and is likely to buy a familiar brand again; and discovery, in which consumers know they’ve run out of a given product but aren’t loyal to a particular brand.
“When you compare digital to physical, physical is still predominant at solving for discovery … no one has solved online for discovery,” he said. “[W]hat’s attractive about VR is its potential to create immersive experiences in the digital realm that will open up and enable browsing.”
At the end of the day, Standish said the goal for Walmart should be convenience.
“Walmart isn’t a place to browse and have fun—it’s very functional,” he added. “You’re not looking for a cool way to buy groceries—it’s the easiest way possible. When a new technology can do this, it’s not a ‘cool’ factor, but how to make navigating a store as big as Walmart even easier.”
In other words, VR could help transport customers to the aisle where they can find a particular product—while also providing supplemental content, like a 360-degree experience about the farm where strawberries grew or a demo video of a hunting bow in action. And that means VR can benefit Walmart as a route to engaging a broader audience with new experiences, as well.
“Combining VR with online and in-store experiences can create a more unique shopping experience at Walmart that differentiates them from their competitors,” Migliozzi added.
And while the core Walmart shopper may not be using VR yet, Mayer said the investment is a long-term bet that won’t have material impact within the next three to five years.
“Online shopping took over a decade to become material, but Walmart has been playing catch-up ever since,” he said. “They don’t want to risk missing the next wave.”