Tech

Virtual
retail-ity

The strange, lonely world
of virtual shopping in China

The strange, lonely experience of shopping in Alibaba’s VR world

To shop in Alibaba’s virtual reality universe, you stare at the thing you want. For instance, a Betsey Johnson handbag at Macy’s, or a bottle of Head and Shoulders at Target. Both are marked with a blue dot not unlike a sniper’s laser beam. Gaze at the dot long enough, and the shampoo will leap off the shelf and hover in mid-air, spinning like a snack on a lazy Susan. Bob your head a few times, and you’ve just paid for the item, as if the transaction happened entirely in your brain.

Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant that earlier this year outpaced Walmart as the world’s largest retailer, debuted this meta mall, called Buy+, last week ahead of China’s Singles’ Day shopping festival on Friday. On Day One, an hour after it launched, 30,000 people had tried the platform, according to the company, which for the occasion produced 150,000 cardboard headsets, sold on Taobao, its consumer-to-consumer marketplace for about 15 cents apiece. As of Thursday, 8 million people had tried it.

Buy+ is the latest — and largest — in a cluster of recent attempts to write VR into shopping’s future. IKEA lets you design your kitchen via an HTC Vive headset, Audi does the same with cars in its showrooms. In May, eBay Australia and Myer launched “the first Virtual Reality Department Store” — a bit of an overpromise, considering it is a blank screen in which 3D products float (no escalators, no changing rooms, no impossibly thin mannequins). Startups in the U.S. and Europe boast of shopping simulations with hyperrealistic shelves and robot assistants, and of disruption to come. Earlier this year, Goldman Sachs estimated the market for virtual- and augmented-reality retail would be worth $1.6 billion by 2025.

The hope is that VR shopping will become a new way to cajole people into buying more stuff, like the department store in 19th century Paris or the internet in the 1990s. “There’s no reason the virtual experience needs to imitate the physical reality,” said Ken Perlin, a computer science professor at New York University and the founding director of its Media Research Lab. “It really is its own thing, offering something reality cannot.”

If Alibaba has its way, Singles Day will be when VR shopping takes off. A kind of mashup of Black Friday and Valentine’s Day where people shop to celebrate being alone rather than in relationships, Singles Day is a 24-hour shopping frenzy, held each year on Nov. 11. It brought Alibaba $14.3 billion in sales in 2015 — more than both Black Friday and Cyber Monday brought all the stores in America combined. It’s an opportunity for retailers to test-drive new initiatives with a young, tech-savvy audience — 76 percent of people who’ve used Buy+ so far are under the age of 36 — as well as to introduce foreign brands to the Chinese market. The seven virtual shops debuting in Buy+ are Costco, Target, and Macy’s (from the U.S.), Freedom Foods and Chemist’s Warehouse (from Australia), and Tokyo Otaku Mode and Matsumoto Kiyoshi (from Japan). Some have no retail presence yet in China, and others are recent arrivals to the market.

“You tell a Chinese person Macy’s is one of the largest department stores in the U.S., very few understand what that means. But with VR, this becomes more compelling,” said Zhuang Zhuoran, the mobile technology director of Alibaba, who wouldn’t disclose investment or revenue numbers from VR. “We’re not focused on profitability,” he noted. The goal for now is to “enhance [the] online shopping experience, making it more fun, more immersive and more experiential.”

To access the experience, you open Alibaba’s Taobao app and slip your smartphone into a slot in the back of the cardboard. (The app is in Chinese, but anyone abroad can download it, and an English-speaker with some time on her hands and a translation app can figure it out.) In VR mode, the screen is split into two halves, which, once filtered through the lenses of the goggles, appear as a single 3D image. Once you select a product and click (that is, stare at) the “Buy Now” button, your shipping address, saved from previous purchases on your Taobao, pops up to confirm. If you’ve already set up an account with Alipay, the company’s online payment service, you can enter your password and complete the purchase.

“Once customers get used to consuming and interacting with certain content format, it would be hard to go back,” Zhuang said. “The evolution from 2D to 3D is unavoidable.”

But is glare-buying shampoo at an almost-Costco fun? Or is it just weird — a kind of uncanny valley of the shopping mall, appealing mainly for its short-term novelty?

So far, VR technology has taken off most in the gaming market, where high-powered tethered headsets enable users to explore fantastical kingdoms and battle with space aliens. In, Buy+, by contrast, you peruse giant crates of Craisins as acoustic muzak plays on repeat. The experience opens in a living room, whose wall art acts as a portal to exotic destinations. When you select one, you’re transported by what looks like Star Wars lightspeed into a splashy 360-degree video of a city. Transported by boat, high-speed rail, and convertible car, once you arrive, the stores are eerily calm. While in the real Costco you might enjoy watching, for instance, a soccer mom and a fraternity brother bicker over the last discount TV, the virtual Costco is deserted. Your bodiless avatar is indicated only by a logo sticker. It’s a lonely and surreal take on the consumer experience, and perhaps a microcosm of some of what’s dissatisfying about shopping as a whole.

But if shopping in general can be banal, repetitive, and dehumanizing, why do we enjoy it so? Perusing the selection at the virtual Macy’s in Buy+ — a convincing replica of a small slice of the Herald Square flagship store — I couldn’t help but remember that it’s not the act of buying things that’s fun about shopping, but everything else besides. Do we go to Macy’s to pay money for Betsey Johnson bags? Or do we go to smell the perfume, to stroke the coats in the fur vault, to see Santa Claus, and then, maybe, drunk on hot chocolate and eau de Justin Bieber, decide to shell out for a bag?

Real-world malls have had more than a century to refine their strategies. Virtual ones have been around for just a couple of years. “You have to start with some kind of paradigm that people can cognitively grasp,” said J.P. Gownder, an analyst at the research and consulting firm Forrester, of why most VR stores so far have imitated brick and mortar. As technology evolves, it may shed some of these conventions, he says. (Why have checkout lines if no one can shoplift? Why have shelves where there’s no gravity?) In Buy+, one of the seven participant stores, Freedom Foods, went in this direction, displaying its muesli, porridge, and cream on a picnic table in a bucolic field, cows mooing in the background.

Augmented reality, which superimposes computer-generated elements over the physical world, could also alter the direction of virtual stores. It could allow you, for instance, to try on a virtual dress in a real-world mirror, or test out a virtual couch for fit in your actual apartment. But that technology is tricky, and a long ways off. “If you are just creating a VR setting for one dress, it’s relatively easy,” Zhuang said. “But if you need to adjust the model of the dress to fit different sizes and achieve it at scale, it’s extremely technically challenging. … We need to make some key technological breakthroughs.” In February, Alibaba led an investment round of $794 million in Magic Leap, a Florida-based company that specializes in AR.

Right now, the biggest hurdle in the way of popularization of VR shopping is the availability of headsets, Gownder said. IKEA and Audi both use the HTC Vive in their simulations, a $799 device. Cardboard headsets, meanwhile, like the ones Alibaba uses, can be distributed for free or close to it, but their capabilities are limited. Previous VR shopping efforts that functioned through cardboard, like eBay’s, required users to leave the experience to pay in a separate app or on the company’s website. Buy+ found a workaround: head movement. In most VR spaces accessible by cardboard, these movements allow you to navigate the virtual world; in Buy+ they also allow you to navigate buttons that lead to payment.

Some critics say that cardboard headsets are watered-down versions of VR and might dissuade consumers from trying out more advanced iterations later. But others in the retail space remain convinced that even lesser milestones on the way to virtual reality — like 360-degree video and 3D images on product pages — can increase sales. “We’ve seen a 5 to 40 percent increase in online conversion rates with 3D imagery, depending on the product and category,” said Marianna Alshina, co-founder of Cappasity, a startup in Santa Clara that creates software to help brands streamline their 3D scanning process. Shoes and clothes, per Alshina, benefit the most from being rendered in high detail. (Was the dress black and blue, or yellow and gold?)

As it stands, though, creating a 3D version of a product is an expensive and time-consuming process for most, whether a company photographs then renders real objects, as Alibaba did for Buy+, or starts from a manufacturer’s CAD files. Alibaba’s long-term goal is to share the capacity to create 3D content quickly and cheaply with its merchants, who might one day open up their own VR stores. Alibaba estimated in July that the cost of creating a single 3D object was about $50 dollars. It hopes to bring it down to $1 per object.

The first person to shop on Buy+ last week was one of Alibaba’s 8.5 million Taobao vendors, Meng Yuxi, a woman from a city in Inner Mongolia, a Chinese newspaper reported. She purchased a jar of nuts from Target for $15. I tried to purchase something from Buy+, too, a tube of toothpaste at Costco. In the end, the store — a near-perfect simulation of a Costco just 12 miles away from me in Harlem — wouldn’t ship outside mainland China. I wandered around in the mall a while longer, until, after 30 minutes or so, my phone battery drained. There wasn’t any perfume to smell, but in the end I didn’t buy anything either.

Alice Hines is a writer in Brooklyn.

CORRECTION (Nov. 11, 12 p.m.): An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect location of the offices of Cappasity. The company is located in Santa Clara, not San Francisco.

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