While brick-and-mortar stores haven't quite become dinosaurs as many had been predicting, Walmart has seen which way the wind blows and is spending billions buying up websites like Jet.com and ModCloth, while investing in new technology – particularly virtual reality - as it goes head-to-head with Amazon.com.
Imagine this, says Katie Finnegan, who heads Walmart's tech incubator: you need a tent for your next camping trip. If all goes to plan, you could one day swoop in to your campsite via virtual reality and see any given tent in action.
''You could unzip it, lay down, look left and right and say, 'Oh, this is supposed to be a two-person tent? It's kind of tight,' '' and then you could move on to the next tent - without leaving your couch, she said, according to a Washington Post report.
''There is a lot of technology we're excited about,'' Finnegan said, ''but virtual reality in particular offers an opportunity to actually experience products and items in an immersive way.''
The technology is not yet mainstream, and such concepts are still in the gee-whiz stage with no guarantee of boosting sales, the report points out. But this summer, the company put out an open call for technology firms, venture capitalists and other entrepreneurs to submit their ideas.
A panel of five judges - including Arianna Huffington, founder of Thrive Global, and Marc Lore, head of Walmart's US e-commerce operations - whittled the 200 applicants to five winners. They then spent about two months at Walmart's technology incubator, called Store No 8, coming up with new shopping-centric applications for virtual reality.
Walmart has been experimenting with virtual reality to help train its employees for busy shopping days like Black Friday. It is also testing a programme that would allow delivery drivers to walk into customers' homes and deliver groceries straight to their refrigerators.
Here are the five ideas the Bentonville, Ark-based company says could be making their way online as early as next year, according to the WP report:
- 3-D holograms at Bonobos.com -the male clothing site Walmart acquired this year for $310 million - that would make it possible for shoppers to try on virtual clothing for fit and style. According to Walmart, the technology would allow customers ''to view how the fabric moves and get a sense of sizing, allowing for more realistic shopping previews and reviews.'' (The idea was proposed by 8i, a New Zealand-based maker of virtual reality software.)
- At ModCloth, the women's clothing site Walmart took over in March, customers may one day be able to take 3-D photos of themselves using their smartphones, and use those images to get an idea of how something might look on them. That way, executives say, shoppers could ''experience the realistic feel of an item before they purchase without having to physically go in-store.'' (A concept offered by Fyusion, a San Francisco-based company that develops technology for processing 3-D scans.)
- An ''interactive virtual store'' for designer Rebecca Minkoff, whose items are sold at Walmart.com, would allow customers to sit in on fashion shows and shop directly from the runway. The technology, the company said, would effectively allow it to create a virtual store-within-a-store. (Developed by Obsess VR, a New York-based technology firm that specializes in 360-degree shopping sites.)
- Tired of shopping online alone? If Walmart's concept works, you may soon be interacting with other shoppers and experts as you pick out items for your virtual cart. Need help picking a pair of jeans? A virtual fashion assistant may be able to help. Trying to figure out why your nightstand is lopsided? An employee could tell you which screws are loose. (A concept from Nurulize, a Los Angeles-based virtual reality software developer.)
- Electric outlets, stove tops and door handles can all be child safety hazards - and soon, an online tool could peek inside your home and tell you where the biggest risks are lurking. The site could also give product recommendations and allow customers to test items virtually before buying them. (Piloted by Specular Theory, a Venice Beach, Calif., company that specializes in immersive content.)