virtual reality

In another blow to physical stores, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. is planning to launch a demonstration virtual reality store by the end of this month.

A large-scale rollout could be introduced by the end of the year. Last week, Alibaba showed how a shopper wearing a Vive VR helmet from HTC Corp. could walk around a digital store. Shoppers wearing the helmet can rotate an item around as if they were picking it up to take a look at it.

Shoppers can ask a robotic sales associate how the product works or is worn, then they can click on the “buy” button to make a purchase. The shoppers will need to provide their own VR helmet, which can cost between $20 and $1,000.

Lest one think VR helmets are a thing of the future, Alibaba’s Chinese market is selling 300,000 units each month. Zhuang Zhuoran, senior director of mobile at Alibaba, said the company is considering sending out free VR helmets so shoppers can give them a try.

“Integrating virtual reality to e-commerce is in its nascent stages,” said Sharon Chan, a spokeswoman at Alibaba. “It’s not just VR, but integrating cutting edge technology while reinventing the shopping experience.”

Alibaba has shown an interest in virtual reality technology. The company led a $794 million funding round for Florida-based VR company Magic Leap Inc. in February. In March, it created a lab called Gnome Magic to develop the VR technology for shopping.

The real trick comes in converting the price of creating a digital, three-dimensional product. Zhuang said the cost is about $50 per product at this time, but the goal is to bring that cost down to $1. Chan agreed, saying that getting the digital 3-D product just right will be the challenge.

Chan also pointed out that the Chinese market may be more receptive to VR shopping. She explained that 60 percent of the country is rural and many people don’t have access to the stores they like. Chan also believes that the Chinese consumer is more mobile-savvy, more open to new forms of retail and are early adopters.

Next week, China’s largest online store Taobao will be having a festival in Shanghai similar to a makers fair. Chan said there will be a lot of innovative products and stores that young people are opening and that VR is going to be a big part of the festival.

“It’s a real interest on our part,” said Chan, “We see VR as a way to transform. It’s the future of shopping as we see it.”