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Ecommerce and the metaverse: What we can expect

illustration of a person using a virtual reality headset and holding a smartphone

The metaverse has finally arrived. Or at least a vision for the metaverse has.

On October 29th 2021, the newly-dubbed ‘Meta’ (A.K.A Facebook) posted a video on YouTube of Mark Zuckerberg selling their proposition for the metaverse. This so-called ‘embodied internet’ will allow us to walk around and interact with spaces that we can currently only view through a screen – at least in theory.

Whether it’s floating in a spaceship with our friends in avatar form (the ‘new profile picture’ according to Zuckerberg) or joining concerts by our favorite artists, this shiny introduction to the metaverse certainly got everyone talking.

But is the metaverse really going to replace the internet as we know it? What does this mean for existing online-only spaces like ecommerce?

We’re going to take a dive into the newly minted metaverse – and some of the ways that ecommerce is already harnessing the principles of virtual connectivity.

What IS the metaverse, really?

It’s understandable that consumers and brands alike are struggling to grasp what the metaverse is. This is because the metaverse doesn’t really exist yet – at least not in the way that evangelists like Mark Zuckerberg envision it. 

And as is the case with many emerging technologies, there’s no universal definition for what the metaverse actually is

The metaverse doesn’t stem from one single innovation; it’s an extension of several existing technologies that have been taken up by consumers at a rapid rate.

It’s the coming together of these innovations – AR, VR, blockchain, cryptocurrency, and social commerce, just to name a few – that creates what commentators are calling the metaverse: An ever-expanding network of real-time, 3D-rendered virtual spaces that function not just as additional selling channels, but as an economy in its own right.

The easiest way to think about the metaverse is as the ultimate blank canvas. The metaverse isn’t just a place for brands to reproduce what exists in the physical world, but to go beyond by addressing newfound needs and pain points that are unique to digital spaces.

The building blocks of the metaverse

Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality

Although AR/VR still seems like science fiction, it’s already well embedded in consumer shopping habits; Over half of consumers (61%) say they prefer to make purchases from sites that incorporate Augmented Reality technology. Meta’s Horizon VR platform has already attracted 300,000 users, a clear sign of their intended dominance in this area.

Due to its wealth of applications across the shopping experience, AR and VR are fast becoming essential for merchants selling products that are traditionally difficult to buy online. Home furnishings, cosmetics, footwear, and fashion typically see high return rates due to the difficulty of judging a product’s suitability online.

A person using warby parker’s virtual try-on app
Warby Parker’s virtual try-on app allows consumers to try on every pair of frames in their product catalog.

Thanks to AR’s product visualization capabilities, consumers are able to make better-informed purchasing decisions and feel confident about supporting a brand. In fact, studies show that consumers are willing to pay as much as 40% more for a product that can be tested through AR.

In sum, the growing popularity of AR and VR technologies is helping ecommerce brands to tap into the power of the metaverse, enabling customers to interact with product offerings more effectively within digital spaces.

NFTs

With all the hype surrounding the world of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) it’s hardly surprising that the Collins Dictionary chose it as their word of the year for 2021. 

These blockchain-based digital assets have taken the form of everything from fashion to memes and sought-after collectibles – and there are far more developments waiting to surprise us.

While NFTs are a complex innovation, it’s the foolproof method they offer for authenticating ownership that makes them a key building block in the metaverse. Brands and consumers alike can use NFTs to facilitate transactions or even to create new digital goods that increase their value proposition.

Gamification

When we think of immersive digital environments, video games are normally the first thing that comes to mind. But gaming is an engaging activity not because of how realistic the environments are, but due to the techniques used to keep us playing.

This is referred to as ‘gamification’, where designers take advantage of our natural competitiveness to motivate us to spend more time on an activity. Gamification makes use of both risks and rewards to entice consumers. The further we get, the bigger the risks – and the rewards – become.

Given the success of this formula, it’s not surprising that gamification is set to play a major role in the metaverse. Consumers want to be entertained, even when doing something as mundane as buying groceries online; whether it’s offering customers the chance to earn loyalty points by playing app-based games or ‘tokens’ that can be redeemed on different rewards, gamifying the retail experience is the key to creating more immersive brand experiences.

Where is the metaverse currently at?

Every new technology has what we might call a ‘gimmick’ phase. This is when technology is being used for technology’s sake – rather than because it offers genuine value.

Tech commentators raised a few eyebrows last month when Microsoft unveiled its new ‘Mesh for Teams’ functionality, which allows people to substitute personalized avatars on Teams meetings in place of using their webcam. 

Microsoft claims that this is the first step in companies being able to build their very own metaverses, where staff can interact and host events. But the general takeaway is that Mesh for Teams is a solution looking for a problem. 

Plus, given the reporting on so-called ‘Zoom fatigue’ and the rise of unnecessary meetings during the pandemic, it appears that workers would prefer less rather than more virtual interactions at the workplace.

But this isn’t to say that the metaverse doesn’t offer any value. So far in its short history, the ecommerce landscape has been a pioneer of the immersive experiences that the metaverse is striving to connect and bring into the mainstream.

The metaverse and ecommerce: What the metaverse means for merchants

You don’t have to look far to find examples of how ecommerce has embraced the possibilities of the metaverse. While the likes of VR headsets are still a long way off for mainstream consumers, there are numerous brands that are diving into this new digital frontier. Their goal? To create more seamless, engaging experiences that remove friction from the shopping journey and boost customer loyalty. 

Breaking down the silos between offline/online channels with virtual shopping

Ever since ‘omnichannel’ became the ultimate buzzword in retail, we’ve seen brands strive to create consistent experiences between ecommerce, brick and mortar, and social media. 

However, this is a lot easier said than done; trying to cater to every conceivable shopping journey requires an advanced tech stack and the total unification of data across every touchpoint – something even major retailers have struggled to coordinate effectively. 

This is why some brands have taken the step of building something entirely new; integrated, dynamic digital stores which bring together the best parts of online and offline.
Virtual shopping has transformed ecommerce from static product catalogs into real-time experiences that enable consumers to ‘walk’ around a store, enjoying 3D-rendered store displays powered by AR and VR technology. It’s a first step to truly bridging the divide between the immersiveness of physical retail and the ease and convenience of shopping online.

a screenshot of charlotte tilbury’s virtual online store
a screenshot a lipstick product page on charlotte tilbury’s site

Charlotte Tilbury launched its first virtual store in 2020 in response to COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. But in 2021, the beauty brand has taken this offering up a notch to create a fully-functioning aspect of the metaverse. 

As well as being able to shop online as normal, Charlotte Tilbury’s ‘Virtual Beauty Gifting Wonderland’ offers visitors virtual beauty consultations and a Shop With Friends feature, where people can bring groups of shoppers to the same session via integrated video. The store also embraces game activations, such as allowing visitors to explore all of the ‘islands’ to find three hidden keys that unlock an exclusive lipstick shade.

Providing greater personalization

Personalization is fast becoming the table stakes for any brand that wants to build customer loyalty; 80% of consumers say they’re more likely to buy from a company that provides tailored experiences, while three-quarters of consumers find the idea of ‘living customer profiles’ valuable to the shopping journey.

Yet personalization in ecommerce so often stops at the point of product recommendations or discounts. This might help to boost conversions, but it doesn’t encourage customers to dive deeper into your brand’s ecosystem and participate in the culture behind your product catalog.

Having long been a pioneer in digital connectivity and innovation, it’s not surprising that Nike has been among the first to invest in the metaverse. In addition to filing a number of trademarks for virtual sneakers and apparel (and so heralding a future release of NFTs) Nike is also taking bold steps into the world of bespoke virtual experiences.

nike’s nikeland 3d space on roblox

This November Nike premiered NIKELAND on the gaming platform Roblox, an immersive and customizable 3D space where the Nike community can participate in games and even create their own using the NIKELAND toolkit. Players can also win medals they can redeem on Nike apparel and accessories for their avatars.

Most importantly, NIKELAND isn’t a strictly online experience. Consumers can activate a special Snapchat lens at Nike’s House of Innovation in New York City that superimposes NIKELAND on the store environment. By allowing customers to bring their personalized slice of the brand directly into the offline experience, Nike can build much stronger emotional connections with shoppers.

Stronger community engagement

In a marketplace where social proof and recommendations from fellow consumers are more effective than any other form of marketing, ecommerce brands have a lot to gain by investing in community-building initiatives. By empowering customers to actively participate in your brand’s activities, you can build a more symbiotic relationship that stays in touch with what fans want from your brand.

Where brands used to rely on PR activations and influencer events, the metaverse has opened up new opportunities to brands who want to get more of their customers under the same (virtual) roof. Where events were once constrained by geography, logistics, and more recently public health restrictions, it’s now possible to open up immersive brand experiences to all.

an ad for sephoria house of beauty, an annual virtual event by sephora

SEPHORia: House of Beauty is an annual event that Sephora has been running since 2017. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and rising influence of virtual shopping, Sephora decided to make the 2021 event entirely digital and free to attend. 

The 3D-interactive fun house included five different ‘rooms’ for customers to navigate, including a ‘loft’ for beauty fans to network, a ‘family room’ featuring roundtable discussions with beauty brand founders, a ‘home theater’ for tutorials and makeup masterclasses, and a backyard ‘party’ featuring celebrity guests and influencers. Attendees also have the opportunity to engage in games and quizzes to win products or purchase the full Experience Kit of products featured at the event.

The rendering of this virtual space has enabled Sephora to present both new and existing content (videos, podcasts, tutorials) in more interesting and immersive ways that drive consumer engagement with real-life, offline offerings.

What does the future hold for the metaverse? It’s still unclear whether we can ever ‘walk’ into the metaverse and actually be present in a different world. How the metaverse develops will really depend on whether companies like Meta are able to build out the architecture needed to create an open-source standard. Otherwise, virtual experiences pioneered by the likes of Nike and Charlotte Tilbury will likely remain siloed to those respective brands. 

The growth of virtual shopping and gamified digital experiences has been fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to engage more with customers online. So, while the likes of Ready Player One is still a long way off, we can expect the experiences that inspired the metaverse to start playing a bigger role in eccommerce at large.

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