The consumer product titan Nike ushered in the 2022 peak holiday shopping season with a fascinating twist, announcing a decisive move into the metaverse with launch of the new .SWOOSH virtual community and touting it as “an inclusive, equitable place for athletes, creators, collectors and consumers to design and own the future of sport.”
While they’re busy designing virtual shoes and jerseys in advance of Nike unveiling its first digital collection sometime in 2023, Morehouse College in Atlanta is leading academia into the metaverse. The college is developing a virtual reality campus where students can expand a human heart and step inside it or jump into a time machine to visit wooly mammoths, where courses are held entirely in a virtual 3D space and where prospective students can take a one-on-one, avatar-to-avatar guided tour of the school without actually setting foot on campus.
As someone who prefers to examine emerging technologies from all sides, including market relevance, before forming an opinion, I’m not prone to hyperbole or feeding the hype cycle. But I’ve been around long enough to know a potential game-changer when I see one, and as the recent forays by Nike, Morehouse College and many others are hinting at, the metaverse could turn out to be the biggest game-changer of all for ecommerce and digital transformation in the retail sector, particularly if retailers apply the lessons they learned from the evolution of ecommerce to the virtual world.
While the concept of the metaverse is far from new, thanks to advances in technology, especially VR capabilities, the opportunities for both retail and consumer products are highly compelling. In fact, the retail sector has a real opportunity to use virtual worlds to uncover new ways to execute and innovate simultaneously, like they did when they were integrating the web into their business models. No need to don a VR headset to envision some of the possibilities that already are within reach or soon will be for organizations with foresight:
To engage with and develop high-performing employees. The metaverse brings an entirely new definition of “hybrid work,” where organizations enable their people to engage in both the physical and virtual worlds for training, onboarding and upskilling. Employees (via their avatars) could, for example, test their abilities under certain situations, practice a skill before implementing it and even visually demonstrate concepts without fear of breaking things in the “real world.”
To run the physical business more efficiently and profitably. Digital twin — the digital representation of a physical object or system — gave us early glimpses of how businesses can learn things in a virtual environment to apply to their physical operations. The metaverse expands the possibilities for retail companies, potentially illuminating:
- Pathways for developing, managing and improving business models.
- Insights to strengthen procurement strategy, marketing strategy, scenario planning, etc.
- Risks and opportunities in a wide range of business processes, as well as across business networks and supply chains.
To build loyalty with customers and cultivate new ones. A presence in the metaverse can help retail companies stay relevant by offering dual-world services to targeted consumer audiences. It also can reveal new ways to reach and engage within the creator economy, such as by co-creating, as Nike is doing with .SWOOSH, where the plan is for members to compete for the opportunity to co-create virtual products and earn a royalty on those products. Companies can grow brand reputation and customer loyalty by meeting people where virtual conversations are taking place. Once engaged there, they can:
- Provide intelligent, emotionally relatable one-to-one support during virtual interactions.
- Offer customers more experiential goods and services to compliment physical offerings.
- Enable consumers to test goods in the metaverse and then have them delivered to the front door.
To test new products, services and business models. In the metaverse, manufacturers can iterate a product before committing to bringing it to market. They can gather feedback from their virtual communities to improve physical products and customer journeys. And they can generally begin to gather valuable insight about how to successfully operate in a hybrid physical/virtual or virtual-only environment, as Nike is doing with itsblockchain-powered web3-enabled platform.
While avatars, digitally co-created sneakers and other Ready Player One-like visions of the metaverse get most of the headlines, it’s important for the retail sector to recognize that even now, the virtual world presents real opportunities to generate new business value by simultaneously executing and innovating across physical and virtual worlds. See you out there in the metaverse.
John Licata is VP and Chief Innovation Foresight Strategist for SAP’s Future Hub, where he helps inspire the company’s long-term innovation vision. His work at SAP focuses on supporting sustainability, human ingenuity, finance and the future of work, including the metaverse and Web 3.0. Before joining SAP, Licata was CEO of Blue Phoenix Inc. and has led research and strategy projects for the likes of Dow Jones, Salomon Smith Barney, Toyota and other leading global brands. He’s a highly sought-after subject matter expert whose views have appeared on Bloomberg, Reuters, CNBC, Business News Network and Fox Business Channel.