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GUEST COMMENT Ecommerce in the metaverse: what will digital retail look like in 2030?

How retailers are navigating a challenging market. Image: Shutterstock

Overnight, Facebook is named “Meta” and everyone is buzzing about the metaverse. Sectors from entertainment to fashion are getting swept up already. So what does this mean for retail?

How did we get here?

It used to be that if you wanted to buy a new couch, you would go in person to the furniture store and walk through their showroom. You would ask for fabric swatches, take notes about the dimensions of different models, or sketch out a floor plan to try to imagine how the couch would look in your living room. Maybe you would take photos to compare your options. Go back a few decades further, and you might have ordered your couch from a catalogue, sight-unseen.

Fast forward: this is no longer the reality of how many people shop. Back in 2017, IKEA launched the IKEA Place app, which lets shoppers see how furniture would look in their home. Wayfair and Target are just two of the other major furniture brands that have developed their own apps. Today, we can look at our favorite couch option in any available color with just a click or two. We can virtually lay out our dream living room with sophisticated design tools, or watch detailed films that capture the materials, construction, and quality of an item–all on the screen of our phone or laptop.

Possible, yes – but not mainstream yet. That’s what the metaverse aims to change.

What’s the metaverse?

The metaverse isn’t a place, exactly – it’s a blanket term for how we interact with new kinds of technology.

    1. Augmented reality – The apps from IKEA, Target, and Wayfair all run on augmented reality (AR) technology. This allows you to scan your surroundings and “augment” it with virtual information, visuals, and objects.
    2. Virtual reality (VR) is a simulated environment. This might be a replication of a real-world space, which you can explore virtually in a new way, or a video game world that continues running even when you aren’t present in it. Online platforms like Second Life have existed for decades; more recently, games like Fortnite have been explosively popular.
    3. Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are certificates of ownership for digital items. If you buy an NFT, you are purchasing the original version of a digital item–a photo, video, or virtual pair of shoes. NFTs use blockchain technology to securely store information about ownership.
  • Artificial intelligence & machine learning – Artificial intelligence (AI) refers to technologies that can perform complex computational tasks on their own. Machine learning is a term for systems that can learn from data and improve their performance over time.

Using glasses or a helmet is the most immersive way to experience AR or VR, but it’s not required. A laptop or smartphone works, especially for AR (think: Pokemon Go or Warby Parker’s virtual glasses fitting room).

Although abstract, the metaverse helps us think about the difference between online and offline experiences–and how that gap might close.

Ecommerce, extended: shopping in the metaverse

Let’s return to shopping for your new couch.

In the metaverse, you won’t need to take photos or notes. You’ll stroll the virtual showroom and be immediately presented with the options that fit your preferences and the dimensions of your living room. When you want to see how a piece would look in your home, you’ll swap to another space and see the new couch next to your existing furniture. You could even sit down and feel for yourself the texture of the fabric and whether or not the cushions are comfortable.

Go further: imagine a store with unlimited staff members who are available at any moment. They know your name, speak your language, and seem to know what questions you have before you even ask. You’ll be able to complete your purchase at any point, without ever standing in a line or waiting for a cashier.

Shopping in the metaverse will bring together the efficiency and convenience of ecommerce with the personalisation and atmosphere of an in-person experience. AI technology is already improving personalization online, which enables ecommerce to compete with brick-and-mortar stores or brands to go omnichannel.

Some brands will naturally step into the metaverse, just as we’ve seen established offline brands do with ecommerce in the past decade. Fashion, decor, and luxury goods are obviously poised for the metaverse: think of a virtual showroom for high-end watches, so realistic that you can feel the weight of the band on your wrist, or remote VR test-drive experiences for luxury vehicles.

The possibilities of metacommerce

The most powerful tech companies and biggest brands are already betting big on the metaverse. In November 2021, Nike partnered with the gaming platform Roblox to launch Nikeland. It’s packaged as a sports-themed gaming world, but Nike is already filing trademarks to sell virtual sneakers. It’s clear they have bigger plans for their metacommerce footprint.

This doesn’t mean that the metaverse is only for global brands like Nike. Embracing metacommerce will allow companies of all sizes to experiment with new ways to grow:

  1. Expand your product offering. Using virtual experiences to sell physical products is just one possibility of retail in the metaverse. It could also be a platform for new virtual products, or a hybrid of both. Virtual products could also help brands to avoid chronic supply chain and delivery logistics issues. Either way, there are revenue-generating possibilities here.
  2. Enhance your brand. Being perceived as cutting-edge is a huge benefit, both for online-only brands to keep ahead of the curve and for established ones to remain relevant. Remember: customer expectations are shaped by their experiences with all the brands they interact with.
  3. Improve your customer experience and retention. Omnichannel retail often struggles to be consistent across channels, but metacommerce could solve this. Customer experience is an important predictor of customer retention, which is make-or-break for many smaller companies.

There are already tools for digital retailers that take advantage of metaverse technology, like artificial intelligence. It’s the kind of tech that will be a cornerstone of metacommerce as it develops. Ecommerce companies should choose solutions that have this metacommerce perspective in mind. This will position them to do business in the metaverse as soon as it hits mass adoption.

Long-term and lasting change

The pandemic has changed shopping behaviours on a massive scale, but it goes further back: ecommerce has been exploding for the past 10+ years.

The long-term shift in how and where people shop is caused by many factors–global recessions, changing ideas about consumption–but ultimately, it’s enabled by new technologies. The metaverse is the latest wave.


Maja Schaefer, founder and chief executive officer of Zowie

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