The virtual store is back—and it’s the best retail experience we could have gotten during a COVID-19 lockdown.
Rather than resembling a printed catalog transformed into online form, as most e-commerce sites do, virtual stores use either 3D renderings of an environment or Google Street-View-like sequences of stitched-together photographic images of a physical location. They replicate neighborhood shopping, letting you walk through aisles and peruse items on display. They safely scratch the itch to be in a local store. But you don’t have to wear a mask, rush in and out, or worry about others not wearing masks or standing too close.
One example I visited for holiday shopping is Cost Plus World Market’s “World of Joy” virtual store, a pop-up online extension of the 243-store specialty import chain. Open only for the holidays this year, World of Joy allows customers to shop via a zoom-and-pan interface that works on PCs and mobile devices.
The fun of shopping at my local Cost Plus World Market comes in part from wandering about to see what’s new, and the serendipity of finding just the right item. I haven’t set foot in a shop for months, was in need of holiday gifts, and worked on one of the first virtual walk-through environments at Apple in the 1990s—so World of Joy checked all my boxes.
The experience is modeled on a neighborhood World Market store, with wooden shelves of goods and the same familiar visual merchandising as the chain’s mall outposts. However, the captured footage was not created in an actual store, but rather a space set up to look like one, set up in a larger area that is bounded by white curtains rather than walls. It looked like a cross between an exhibit at a trade show and a full-blown World Market.
The controls are easy enough to manage, letting you click or tap your way around the store. Click on snowflake icons, and you can jump to shelf areas containing specific products or groupings. It’s easier to browse than to find specific items, as areas are not labeled and the “Floor Plan” option resembles a strange retail Advent calendar, with 50 sections that don’t indicate what they contain until you’ve clicked through to one. There’s also a “Dollhouse” mode, which offers a 3D rotatable view of the World of Joy with zones you can click.
Once you’ve selected a product, a more conventional website window opens on top of the shop with more information and the ability to place the item into a shopping bag. In general the World of Joy offers a smaller selection of merchandise such as games, clothing, kitchen items, and general holiday decor, and it is worth noting that it doesn’t sell alcohol, which is a staple of World Market’s offline stores.
Having been at home for such a long time, I loved roaming around, jumping to various shelves and seeing what was available. Each aisle had enough familiarity in its design language to make me want to look at the products. I even liked using the Advent-style floor plan to randomly pick sections of the store to visit.
Back to the future of online retail
The engine that drives World of Joy is from Matterport, a company that offers a 3D data platform that enables a space to be turned into an “accurate and immersive digital twin.” Matterport has also built virtual stores for Lily Pulitzer, Andersen Windows and Doors, Micha-Paris, Herman Miller, and others. Ferguson Bath, Kitchen, and Lighting Gallery, which has 250 showrooms across the U.S., has digitized 70 local showrooms using Matterport’s technology, with plans to add another 60.
These stores may be part of a new trend, but they also recall an earlier era. Even before the web, people were creating virtual walk-through environments. In the early 1990s, pan, zoom, and select interfaces were circulating in the technology community—some using video, and others based on rendered graphics. Dan O’Sullivan at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program put his apartment online via a telephone interface that controlled prerecorded video on CD-ROM. “Dan’s Apartment ” gained a cult late-night cable TV following, and O’Sullivan interned at Apple around the same time that it was developing QuickTime, its multimedia framework.
In 1991, the same year that Apple released QuickTime, the company demoed The Virtual Museum, a 3D walk-through museum with exhibits on scientific topics that was released on CD-ROM in 1992. As an Apple employee at the time, I worked on this project, which allowed people to fly over the surface of Mars, see plants grow over time, and even to watch a galaxy unfold.
After the Virtual Museum’s release to museums and educational institutions worldwide, I spent some time investigating how it was used. One of the key findings was that people loved walking through the museum once, but after that, they wanted quick access to content. Fortunately, Apple provided a clickable floor plan; after a single walk-through, people used the map for reference.
As the web began to take off, some early commerce sites simulated traditional retail stores, complete with “shelves.” Some were built with Apple’s QuickTime VR, a method for transforming images into clickable pan-and-zoom panoramic environments. But with home bandwidth still an issue in the pre-broadband era, these walk-through environments didn’t become an enduring part of online retail. Instead, shopping evolved to emphasize grids, lists, still images, and carts, with the occasional video.
That is, until the coronavirus came along and we stopped being able to go into stores and embraced online shopping as our main mode for exploring the outside world. A recent Wall Street Journal noted that some retailers, such as Ralph Lauren, were reproducing exact replicas of offline locations in order to “stoke the fire” for future in-store visits once the pandemic has passed.
Ralph Lauren offers several faithful online walk-throughs of its stores; I dropped in on the Beverly Hills location, because I’ve been there and wanted to see how the digital version compared. A much more comprehensive experience than Cost Plus World Market’s World of Joy, it offers a side menu that lists departments, eliminating the need to “walk” through the space to get to a specific department. Unlike the silent World of Joy, it plays music, which adds to the experience. And because it’s an online recreation of an actual store—not just a temporary setup—there’s a richness and depth to the interior.
The Ralph Lauren store was created by Obsess, whose other retail clients include Tommy Hilfiger, Sam’s Club (with a National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation theme), and Charlotte Tilbury. Obsess CEO Neha Singh told me that the company’s mission is to replace the typical online shopping experience, which consists of “an endless scroll of every product looking the same size on a white background.” To that end, the Ralph Lauren Virtual Experience is successful. Still, while it isn’t boring, it’s kind of lonely. What’s missing in all of the virtual shopping environments I explored were other people walking by, talking, offering to help, looking at and touching things.
The loss of the human element is palpable. In the Lauren store’s shoe department, I watched a video with vignettes of people touching each other and engaging in high-risk activities such as gathering for the holidays. It left me wistfully remembering what I was missing in the world, and nothing I could do there, or anywhere else, could replace that.
Matterport client Ferguson addresses virtual shopping’s solitude by offering online appointments with its kitchen, bath, and lighting showroom consultants. Using Microsoft Teams, shoppers can share a virtual walk-through of a store, controlled by the consultant. While it might be a bit of a technical stretch for most shoppers to need Teams and a web browser just to pick out something from a shop, adding this social interaction to the retail experience recreates what’s missing in most virtual store experiences.
Ultimately, wandering in the marketplace is a centuries-old form of human connection and socialization, and a necessary social lubricant for communities. Stores that we can actually walk through in our neighborhoods offer us sights, sounds, smells, and human connections that support us as social beings, and the people who work in stores are inadvertent keepers of community knowledge. Replacing brick-and-mortar stores with virtual ones removes that critical aspect of community. With any luck, it will return after the pandemic.
For now, I’m enthusiastic about walk-through virtual store shopping. Even with its limited floor plan and inventory (World of Joy), or ads taunting me about a world of human behavior that’s currently on hold (Ralph Lauren), wandering anywhere outside of the house during this final lockdown push offers a bit of a desperately needed change of scenery. For the dark winter of 2020, being able to wander and connect with the marketplace outside the home in a somewhat familiar way is a holiday shopping winner.
S. A. Applin, PhD, is an anthropologist whose research explores the domains of human agency, algorithms, AI, and automation in the context of social systems and sociability. You can find more at@anthropunk and PoSR.org.