New shopping age virtually here

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The Independent Online
We have Tesco selling wine on the Internet. We already have Dixons, Our Price and Interflora on the information superhighway. Now electronic shopping looks set to take another leap forward. Welcome to the virtual reality of Sainsbury.

Sainsbury has developed a virtual reality version of its Salford store, an exact replica from the trees outside down to the smallest can of baked beans.

Don the headset, grab the joy-stick linked to your computer and you are off on the virtual grocery run. You can zoom around the aisles or take short cuts, flying from the peaches to the petit pois. Grab your virtual veg and zap, they go straight to the virtual checkout (no need for a trolley). Want to leave? Go through the wall and fly home like Superman.

At the moment, Sainsbury says the technology will help gauge shopper reaction to new store layouts and designs rather than offer virtual-reality shopping. It will help monitor responses to wider checkouts, lighting, higher or lower shelves.

But shopping from home with computer and 3D goggles may not be far away, according to Mike Brought, Sainsbury's business systems manager. "People say it's a long way away, but technology moves very quickly."

Professor Bob Stone, head of the National Centre for Virtual Environments at Salford University, is even more confident. Professor Stone, who helped develop the system for Sainsbury, says we could be roaming around virtual supermarkets within two years.

He says other retailers such as M&S and Safeway have also been looking at the technology. Headsets currently cost around pounds 850, but that will be reduced. Virtual headsets that work with computer games such as Sega and Nintendo could be on sale soon for around pounds 200.

But there remain significant hurdles which retailers and other service providers must overcome before goods can be sold using this technology. The logistics of delivery will prove a challenge for retailers, particularly with chilled or frozen items. Customers may be prepared to buy packaged or commodity goods such as milk and sugar by this remote method, but they can't squeeze the avocados or smell the stilton.

Retailers and technology groups are only just overcoming the security problems involved in paying by credit card on the Internet.

Another problem is the gulf between the technology and people's willingness to use it. David Symonds of Andersen Consulting said: "The Sega and Nintendo generation are not the same people who are going to spend pounds 100 a week at the supermarket. In trials, some women took a dislike to the goggles. They said they messed up their hair."