There’s a lot of buzz and misunderstanding lately about something called The Metaverse. Tony, our co-editor, has authored several recent articles expressing his thoughts on these themes, drawing on decades of expertise in the field of 3D and immersive digital experiences. And there are a slew of visionaries and pundits pontificating and supporting Web 3.0, which is sometimes confused with the Metaverse and does overlap extensively with it.
At the same time, there isn’t much clarity about what those of us working in the broad reaches of retail should think about, let alone do, in reaction to this new phenomenon. We, as Near Future of Retail, wish to make a difference.
The Metaverse in a Nutshell
At this time, the most basic and helpful way to think of the Metaverse is as a place to be, and more broadly, as a place to be with other people and things.
When we talk about immersive technologies and experiences, we’re referring to an environment or location that we can immerse ourselves in, or be inside of. Immersion refers to real-time digital 3D and increasingly photorealistic places and things that we experience as entire worlds. We sometimes grant ourselves a little poetic license, talking about immersion more broadly in terms of content and narratives — but for our purposes here at NFR and generally in our professional work, immersive refers to real-time digital 3D and increasingly photorealistic places and things that we experience as entire worlds. Other common media kinds, like streaming video and audio — which are becoming more immersive thanks to spatialization and algorithmically generated, biometrically sensitive content — are also considered implicitly part of the Metaverse’s immersive multisensory experience.
As a result, the Metaverse is immersive in that it is a place to be. Furthermore, it must be a place where people want to be — which means an engaging place, a pleasant place, a place where our friends and friends-to-be hang out and meet each other, doing things that are enjoyable, gratifying, and beneficial to us. The built environment’s practice of placemaking is a useful reference point.
Retail can be defined as the collection of people, places, things, activities, and be behaviour at allow people to connect with what they want and need. “Connect with” refers to the complete product/service lifecycle: explore, buy, use, manage, and replace. Yes, this is an inclusive picture of retail – much larger and more inclusive than storefronts, and much more encompassing than what we think of as shopping. While this may appear to be more complicated, we believe it is a simplification of retail since it provides a wide-angle view of what is conceivable and emerging.
People only care about what they desire. And they go about getting what they want with each other, to have as much fun as possible while doing so, and spending as little time as possible on unfun activities linked to it.
E-commerce and digital technology have been gradually eliminating the inefficient, time-consuming components of shopping for about 25 years until, by 2019, it was possible to spend near-zero time obtaining and then waiting to receive many of the products we buy in heavily populated areas of the West. However, along with the inefficiencies, the pleasant, social, and amusing components of shopping were also lost. “I think Amazon solved buying, but it killed shopping in the process,” Glossier’s Emily Weiss said eloquently in 2018. The epidemic has merely accelerated this trend.
Meanwhile, throughout the same 25 years, an increasing number of individuals have been conversing, playing games, watching and sharing content, and discovering and engaging with brands and products through digital means. The marketing dimension of linking people with products and services has shifted to digital, especially for younger people. Despite this, shopping in the sense that Emily Weiss and countless others envision it — as an in-person, embodied, sensual experience — has remained primarily tactile, material, spatial, and in-person.
In My Retail, You’ve Got Metaverse! In My Metaverse, You’ve Got Retail! The shopping mall, in its marvellously fascinating and seductive 1980s expression, is our childhood reference point for the convergence of entertainment, hanging out, and engaging with products and services. The mall is a visceral memory for many of us who grew up in the American suburbs in the 1980s and 1990s. My school featured a terrific video arcade called Space Port, where I could spend all day with my pals, only stopping for snacks at the food court. It’s on my shortlist of places to visit if I ever get my hands on a time machine. The shopping centre was the place to be.
To put it another way, the mall worked because it was a destination. And it stopped working as a company when there weren’t enough individuals interested in attending. We’ve arrived at the fertile delta of multiple behavioural, technological, and business/engagement model trends in late 2021, all flowing towards the Metaverse’s ocean:
Massive multiplayer game worlds, such as Fortnite and Roblox, are places where young people meet up, hang out, play, and progressively experience great entertainment with their peers. These are becoming places where brands meet individuals with their products, services, and messaging because they are compelling places to be. Buying and selling virtual items is already a large part of these areas; transacting on actual goods will be even bigger.
Collaborative meme-making and transcultural social content production on TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and other platforms have grown so interesting and complex that they now feel like destinations in their own right.
Identity and self-expression diversification. As pronouns and language, infinitely adjustable style and fashion, and unfettered visual ways of communication combine with our constant connectivity with one another, the early internet promise of becoming whomever you want to be is finally coming to fulfilment.
Everything is moving towards virtual reality. Influencers, currencies, ownership, and even people are all examples of products, showrooms, clothing, and sneakers. We’ve looked at the concept of The End of Distance in terms of people, places, and things. Brands are already creating NFTs, or “collectable” advertisements.
With marketing and brand expression, contextually relevant buying options, and the evolution of DTC and DTA, brands are getting better at meeting people where they are in all of the above situations (Direct to Avatar).
So, The Metaverse + Retail = a new sort of place to be, where we can connect and express ourselves more completely with our friends while also connecting with a much larger world of goods to discover and buy, things that are connected with our ways of being and what fulfils us.
It’s a Mall, but It’s Not a Mall
Despite countless startups striving to develop 3D virtual mall-like experiences, we wish to emphasize that this is not The Mall 2.0. Instead, brands and merchants are meeting customers where they are already – whether at home, on the sidewalk downtown, absorbed in a massively multiplayer game world, or anywhere else. For decades, retailers have viewed the endless aisle vision as the holy grail, yet there will be no aisles or shelves.
The entire world is becoming more shareable and shoppable, as we’ve seen in this newspaper. In other words, technology will continue to eliminate the aspects of shopping that we dislike — a la Amazon — while also improving the aspects of shopping that we value the most, such as the social, entertainment, and even sensory experience. This is true in both physical stores (as we’ve discussed in previous articles) and location-independent digital experiences across a wide range of devices.
The Metaverse, we believe, represents the apex of the tendencies we discussed at The End of Distance — namely, the potential for people, places, and things to be co-present regardless of their physical location. We shall be able to accomplish more and more of what we do in the physical world as co-presence improves infidelity and utility, independent of the distance between ourselves and the other nouns we are engaging with.
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