Posey's Tips & Tricks

A Future Shopping Trip in the Metaverse

While there are many convenience propositions that may come with VR-based shopping, it also comes with its share of pitfalls.

In a recent blog post I explained that technology companies such as Microsoft and Facebook have been exploring the idea of creating VR platforms that may eventually serve as collaborative spaces. More recently, Walmart has announced some plans to venture into the metaverse.

Walmart’s announcement is somewhat vague, and it has led to quite a bit of speculation as to what the company’s metaverse presence might look like. Just do a Web search of the phrase “Walmart metaverse” and you will find countless articles discussing the services that the retailer might eventually offer.

I’m not going to speculate as to what Walmart might eventually decide to do with the metaverse. What did get my attention however, was a video from several years ago in which Walmart explored the idea of shopping in a VR environment.

Walmart’s recent announcement has caused a renewed interest in the video, and a lot of people who have commented on the video have poked fun at its dated graphics and user interface. If you put all that aside though, the video clearly illustrates the fact that major retailers have been interested in the idea of VR shopping for many years. Given the work that has already been done, it seems likely that it will eventually be possible to go shopping in the metaverse. So what might that be like?

If VR-based shopping is ever to catch on, it will have to accomplish a couple of things. First, the experience has to be comfortable and reliable. Nobody is going to make a habit of shopping in the metaverse if the interface is buggy or if the visuals are constructed in a way that causes a significant number of people to experience motion sickness -- or worse yet seizures.

Another thing that VR-based shopping will have to accomplish if it is to gain mainstream acceptance is to present itself as a compelling alternative to online shopping as it exists today. Right now, online shopping is borderline effortless. If I were to visit Amazon right now, I would be automatically logged in, I could add an item to my cart in a single click and, because Amazon already has my credit card number on file, I can complete the purchase with just a few mouse clicks. The entire process is fast and efficient.

If VR shopping is to become a thing, it will need to be just as efficient as the current generation of online shopping. After all, we are all busy and nobody wants to spend their time jumping through hoops trying to make their way through an online purchase. Similarly, the metaverse environment will have to include a voice search feature where customers can simply ask for the item that they are looking for and be instantly teleported to that item rather than having to aimlessly wander up and down virtual shopping aisles.

The real value add that might just make VR shopping attractive would be the ability to interact with the product before buying it. I couldn’t even tell you how many times I have tried to make an online purchase and couldn’t quite tell from the photographs and the description if the product included the one feature that I really needed. Conversely, a VR environment might allow you to virtually handle product, rotate it and possibly even try it out. This could be handy when shopping for gadgets, but the concept could also be applied to clothing if a retailer were to construct a virtual fitting room that allows you to virtually try on outfits.

Metaverse Shopping's Problematic Issues
Of course there are also some things that retailers may need to rethink before customers will be willing to shop in the metaverse. Admittedly, the Walmart video illustrates a prototype VR environment from several years ago, so the retailer may be looking at things that are vastly different than what is depicted in the video. Even so, there were three things in the video that I saw as major red flags and that would turn me off from shopping in such an environment.

First, the prototype retail environment was equipped with a virtual sales associate that follows the customer around the store. When I am shopping, there is nothing that I hate more than being hounded by a salesperson. I don’t care if I’m shopping for a car, furniture, appliances, or something else, I would rather be left alone and have the option of asking for help if I needed. In the Walmart video however, the salesperson was always there and played a major role in the shopping experience.

The second red flag from the Walmart video was the constant up selling. Retailers are going to upsell. I get it. Even so, there is something to be said for just being able to get the item that you came for without being hounded about purchasing accessories, service plans, or similar items every time that you put something into the cart.

The third red flag, and this is the big one, was that the environment in the video struck me as being somewhat invasive and intrusive. There was a moment in the video where the customer placed a gallon of milk into the cart. Upon doing so the sales associate informed them that they already had milk at home and asked if they wanted to put the milk back. Personally, I would rather a retailer not know what I have in my home, and I definitely don’t want a salesperson asking me if I want to put an item back just because I already have it at home. If I need an extra gallon of milk, then that’s my business, not the store’s. Not only is advising me to put an item back based on what’s in my refrigerator an invasion of privacy, but the item might not even be for me. Sometimes I pick up grocery items for my elderly neighbors.

The bottom line is that I think the metaverse holds enormous potential when it comes to e-commerce, but retailers have a lot of work to do if they want to lure customers. An online shopping portal will have to feel safe, efficient and nonintrusive. It will also have to deliver some sort of value-added proposition (such as being able to virtually examine products prior to purchase) that does not exist in current online shopping portals.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 20-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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