Virtual shopping malls: the future of retail therapy?

Various virtual retail spaces are popping up left, right, and centre, where consumers can shop using VR headsets. Will this transform retail entirely, or could virtual reality’s appeal turn out to be limited?
Industries: Retail
  • How might virtual malls look?
  • 3D products for virtual malls
  • The next frontier of online shopping
  • VR retail in action – three examples
  • Can virtual shopping work for every type of product?

With the steady growth of online retail over the last couple of decades, shopping from the comfort of your sofa is nothing new. However, the experience of visiting a shop and browsing, touching, and experiencing the actual products has always entailed leaving the house – until now, that is. Advancements in virtual reality (VR) technology are bringing the more interactive aspects of the shopping experience to consumers’ homes, provided they have a VR headset. A number of virtual shopping malls have already been created – or are currently in development – where shoppers can experience digital representations of shops and their products. Does this combination of online and ‘traditional’ retail have mass appeal, or is it simply a middle ground that lacks the advantages of either option? As virtual shopping develops, we will find out.

Virtual shops could be located on futuristic spaceships, in underwater utopias, or even be transported to Lapland for the Christmas period!

How might virtual malls look and work?

As virtual shopping centres lack the constraints of physical ones, they could theoretically look like almost anything that you can imagine (or that developers and designers can create). However, most existing concepts and examples recreate what physical malls typically look like. Perhaps this is due to familiarity being an advantage for users when learning how to use a new technology, and the fact that it helps customers find the items that they are looking for more easily. This may change over time, however, as customers become more used to the concept and open to its development. Shops could be located on futuristic spaceships, in underwater utopias, or even be transported to Lapland for the Christmas period! For convenience and effective advertising, the items on the shelves will most likely remain accurate 3D representations of the real products that will be delivered to their buyers. 

Much like in other virtual spaces, such as the metaverse, virtual shoppers will be represented by their avatars. Real humans may work as shop assistants and consultants to recommend products and offer information, although these roles could eventually also be taken by AIs. Once customers leave the shop, the contents of their baskets can be automatically tallied and ordered, removing the need to pay at a till. The virtual mall concept offers retailers several advantages – their non-physical nature removes the need to rent space (although some metaverse spaces have implemented leasing systems) and eliminates limitations on how many visitors a shop can accommodate at one time. Visual design will also be easier as it won’t be constrained by the limitations of physical materials and their availability.

3D products for virtual malls

Another advantage of virtual retail is the prevention of theft. As most of the products on display are virtual representations of what will later be delivered to shoppers’ homes, it isn’t possible to fill your pockets with items and leave the shop without paying for them. 3D representations of products have other benefits as well – compared to merely seeing 2D images of products on a screen, seeing and ‘handling’ them in 3D increases customer engagement and, as a result, sales. Bumbleride, a retailer of pushchairs and prams, found that including 3D models of products on their site raised the conversion rate by a third and the time users spent on each page by a fifth. The ability to see products from all angles can be particularly useful for retailers and customers of products like furniture, clothing, and jewellery. Creating 3D models of products can be a useful first step in preparing for the potential of a VR-dominated retail market.

The next frontier of online shopping

The extent to which the rise of online shopping transformed retail cannot be overstated. Online stores provided many benefits for consumers, such as the ability to choose from a wider range of products than those in stock in shops near them, the reduced prices (costs associated with running physical stores were eliminated, and many retailers passed these savings on to the customer), and the ability to purchase without having to travel to shops. Scannable QR codes and contactless payments further reduce the time it takes to make purchases. New developments will continue to close the gap between ‘inspiration’ and ‘purchase’ – think pausing a TV show to scan the screen and buy a product that is displayed there, interactive billboards that let you buy the product with merely a tap or a swipe, and smart glasses that instantly provide information on the availability of products you see around you.

Although these developments are sure to be lucrative for manufacturers and retailers and more convenient for time-constrained shoppers, there are also notable potential downsides. With advertisements not only encroaching into every space (physical and virtual) but also being interactive enough to allow instant purchases, our shopping habits could change in ways that we aren’t prepared for. The loss of that potential moment of hesitation between seeing and buying could lead to more spontaneous and financially irresponsible purchases – not to mention the wider social and economic implications of these ‘impulse buys’. For those with money to burn, however, a future of instant shopping could be a dream come true. As with many other technological and social developments, the effects of this change could vary wildly depending on the financial status of each individual and many other factors.

VR retail in action – three examples

Metaverse company RFOX is one of the organisations driving the development of virtual retail spaces. Its own version of the metaverse, named RFOX VALT, runs on an ecosystem powered by RFOX and VFOX tokens. Businesses can also buy virtual land upon which to run their own shops. One of the main selling points of RFOX VALT is its combination of retail with spaces focused on other pursuits, such as art, music concerts, and e-sports events. Between competing in events, you can, for instance, order food at a virtual shop and have it delivered to your real, physical address.
Another example of VR retail is The Black Virtual Mall, a virtual venue developed for Black-owned businesses to trade from. Its founder, Alquincia Selolawane, receives vendor applications each month and leases shop and kiosk spaces to successful applicants. The mall includes multiple floors and even a food court. While the concept of virtual real estate has been explored before, The Black Virtual Mall is perhaps the first “virtual commercial property development project” for retailers.

TheMall is one of the largest virtual malls and entertainment destinations. It is eight times larger than the world’s largest physical shopping centre, the Dubai Mall, and comprises over 100 million square metres and more than 100 different floors.

And in the metaverse, TheMall is one of the largest virtual malls and entertainment destinations. It can be accessed from internet browsers, and visitors can shop for a variety of physical and digital products. Although it doesn’t yet support VR, this capability is in development and will very likely be an option in the near future. According to Alan Smithson of the project’s developer MetaVRse, TheMall is eight times larger than the world’s largest physical shopping centre, the Dubai Mall, and comprises over 100 million square metres and more than 100 different floors. Some 70 per cent of the space in the mall is earmarked to be sold to developers in the form of NFTs, with the remainder of the space being ‘speculative assets for investors’. Eventually, Smithson and his team plan for TheMall to host concerts, shows, and AI ‘concierges’ to assist visitors. 

Can virtual shopping work for every type of product?

Of course, when it comes to certain types of products, virtual shopping does have its limitations. For example, buying shoes and clothing online may be popular, but there is no way to actually try them on in virtual reality. To offer solutions for this challenge, bespoke footwear retailer Poppy Barley has introduced virtual fit and styling appointments that offer more information than simply looking at online product catalogues. The experience of putting the shoes on, however, still requires the products to be purchased and delivered. Many parts of the service industry are also less likely to experience a VR revolution at any time in the foreseeable future. No technology exists – yet – that enables us to get a haircut or be handed a freshly-brewed coffee by someone who isn’t physically in the same room. For the time being, VR shopping malls will focus on products, with services limited to those that can be carried out from a distance. The international furniture and home décor retail store Crate&Barrel, for instance, is exploring this niche by offering virtual home design services that offer 3D, 360-degree room tours.

Closing thoughts

As with many new concepts, the one of virtual malls has also been met with criticism and scepticism. For many, the main advantage of going to the shops isn’t the physical act of picking up products, but the social component. Shops can be places where people meet or bump into other members of their communities and foster social connections. This could be difficult to replicate in virtual spaces that aren’t rooted in physical locations, where the person (or rather, the person’s avatar) next to you could either be from a few blocks away or actually from the other side of the world. Another criticism is the potentially reduced convenience when compared to non-VR-based online shopping – walking (even virtually) around a store and picking up products takes longer than simply clicking on items and adding them to a shopping basket. It is worth noting, however, that virtual malls may enable those who cannot access physical shops – due to logistical challenges, disabilities, or other reasons – to partially replicate the experience rather than being limited to clicking buttons on a screen.

In order for the virtual mall concept to become more than simply reinventing the wheel, developers will need to take advantage of the opportunities inherent and unique to the concept, rather than merely recreating the least convenient and desirable aspects of both online and physical shopping as a gimmick. However the virtual mall concept develops, it is important for retailers to prepare for the market to be disrupted by this technology. Adapting to this may require a significant overhaul of existing business models. Success in retail depends on an accurate understanding of consumer desires, and organisations should pay attention to how consumers respond to virtual malls over the coming years.

Industries: Retail
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