Can Virtual Stores Make Shopping More Sustainable?

Is virtual reality shopping more sustainable? New tech is making online shopping more common and convenient.

Online shopping is starting to collide with the physical world. In Korea, as long as two years ago, a supermarket chain designed a new shopping experience for subway riders: while they waited on the platform, commuters could look at giant images of store shelves, order items through their phone, and set delivery to happen when they got home from the train. In the photo above, what look like shelves are just photographs with QR codes on the walls of the subway station.

Similar virtual store have been built in other parts of the world as well. Now, in China, virtual reality shopping is going in another direction, with smartphone apps that can project images of shelves onto empty public spaces. As someone walks around a city square, looking at their phone, they can move around a digital store.

If virtual stores become more common, what type of impact would they have on the world? It's an interesting question. Online shopping has some advantages from a sustainability perspective: if a company doesn't have the physical infrastructure of a store to build, heat, cool, and light, and uses a much more efficient warehouse inside, it's saving energy. And delivery vehicles are more efficient than individual shoppers driving to stores—if, that is, shoppers are driving and not just walking to a store in their neighborhood. Online retailers like Amazon have also been able to eliminate packaging that was only needed on store shelves.

Augmented reality stores would likely just increase the number of people shopping online. In theory, that might lead to fewer brick-and-mortar stores, though it's arguable that people will always like certain aspects of shopping in real life. It's also hard to imagine how a neighborhood filled with virtual stores would support a local economy or community.

Images courtesy of Tesco and Yihaodian

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