When Facebook, Inc., announced in October 2021 that it planned to change its name to Meta, searches for the term “metaverse” skyrocketed. But despite its buzz, the metaverse is still very much in its infancy and its shape is very loosely defined.
One definition most can agree on, though, is that it’s a “virtual world,” and one that already is presenting tremendous opportunities for both brands and consumers. Retailers — drawn by both curiosity and the lure of building new relationships and opportunities with new or existing consumers in a new environment — are and will remain present in a virtual world even as its economic models continue to evolve.
And just as the metaverse will change the way that we shop, communicate and socialize, it will also change how customer service is delivered. Like the physical world, goods and services sold and consumed in the metaverse are not immune to issues that require customer service to solve. Some products in the metaverse will be linked to physical items, some will exist only in a virtual world while others will be both. Many more metaverse goods, services and experiences have yet to be conceptualized or offered.
Despite this still-cloudy environment, one thing is crystal clear: good customer service in the metaverse will be just as vital, if not more so, as in the physical world.
For retailers with years of brand loyalty built in the physical world and those for which the metaverse is their first introduction to markets, a pivotal question exists: how can retailers deliver strong customer service in a new, undefined, virtual environment?
Retail in the Metaverse, Today and Tomorrow
Depending on how you define the early-aughts virtual game Second Life, the metaverse is either nearly two decades old or brand new. Regardless, its current iteration is more complex, dynamic and compelling than whatever may have come before it. Many naysayers exist and point to Second Life as an example that the metaverse won’t take off this time either. What they fail to realize is that the platform it was built upon (stability, security, etc.) was not able to support a great experience. With the advancements of 3D technologies and Web 3.0 infrastructure, the metaverse has already taken flight.
Today, countless retailers are already invested in their metaverse offerings, providing a wide range of goods and services in the growing number of metaverse platforms such as Decentraland, Roblox and The Sandbox.
Sportswear giant Nike has spent like a giant on its metaverse plays, established a Metaverse Studio, launched NikeLand on Roblox (which has seen 7 million visitors) and purchased a virtual fashion company called RTFKT. Gucci too is all-in; earlier this year it purchased and is in the process of developing virtual real estate in The Sandbox, and last month announced a partnership with 10KTF to develop a virtual floating “New Tokyo” world and fashion accessories for purchase by owners of NFT profile pictures. Forever 21 too has virtual stores in the metaverse, where significant interest in a virtual-only beanie has encouraged the retailer to add a physical version to its winter 2022 catalog.
This is only the tip of the retail metaverse iceberg. As Alan Smithson, Co-founder of metaverse development company MetaVRse and general expert on this new frontier, laid out recently, the potential for retailers is as massive as it is varied.
Opportunities in the metaverse for retailers can include:
- Social ecommerce: Share virtual shopping experiences with friends;
- Try before you buy with 3D product reviews: Virtual try-ons, 3D product reviews and deep dives into products via augmented or virtual reality;
- Virtual product catalogs: More dynamic that their physical peers;
- Loyalty programs centered in the metaverse: NFTs sold by retailers can provide access to metaverse-only loyalty programs whose benefits exist only within virtual settings
Whether they’re offering a virtual version of a physical good or service, or creating an entirely new offering unique to the metaverse, brands entering this new world have tremendous opportunity to both build on their customer service established in the physical world and to create even better shopping experiences in this new dynamic environment.
Customer Service Opportunities for Retailers in the Metaverse
Retailers are facing a challenge that isn’t easy to solve. How and where people want to shop and be serviced varies greatly across different demographics.
A Harris Poll earlier this year found that younger generations are more familiar with the metaverse: 55% of Gen Z and 60% of Millennials are at least somewhat familiar with the concept of the metaverse (compared to just 35% of Gen Xers and 17% of Boomers).
It’s also important to consider how the economics and value of goods and services can change in the metaverse, which can increase the value of existing products or — as digital collectibles like NFTs have shown us — create entirely new products and economies that previously did not exist and thus did not require customer service.
Customer service is not copy/paste; Brands should not expect their customer service strategies of the current in-store and online world to work seamlessly in the metaverse. They must examine from the ground up:
- What’s in their metaverse product portfolio;
- Which products are new and need a new customer service function;
- What levels of service their metaverse buyers will want/need/expect;
- How their metaverse customer service aligns with physical world customer service (it should be consistent).
With insight into the above, brands can deliver strong customer service in both traditional and new ways in the metaverse, including:
- Real-time customer service: Driven by AI and avatars, retailers can (from their own systems anywhere in the world) provide global real-time service, which younger consumers (who are most excited about the metaverse) demand;
- Enhanced customer relationships: Metaverses promise more dynamic and new shopping experiences that can not only establish strong relationships but build new, even stronger ones from new and more intimate products/experiences;
- Social commerce: Metaverses enable anyone anywhere in the world to enter the same environment and share the same experiences, making shopping a highly social event;
- More detailed product info: The metaverse is not limited to word count or space on signage like physical stores. It allows retailers unlimited space to share product info, which will likely increase the volume of questions from customers;
- Deeper, more insightful analytics: With digital commerce (such as that in the metaverse), insights and data are easier and faster to ingest and analyze to improve customer experience. The trick is marrying those with any physical stores your brand may have;
- One-to-many model: Though geographically more dispersed, customers/users of the metaverse are in some ways less dynamic than their physical peers in that they are all operating in the same virtual environment, in the same virtual storefront and with the same products. This can enable retailers to effectively deploy a one-to-many model of customer service.
Though still very undefined, the metaverse presents retailers with a whole new world in which to engage customers, drive loyalty and deliver strong customer service, potentially from the ground up. From new products to entirely new bespoke experiences in the metaverse to simply continuing the level of strong service delivered in the physical world, retailers have no shortage of opportunities in this new economy.
While our virtual-first future may seem further away, there are practical steps retailers can take to get started and prepare. Retailers must begin unifying customer service across physical and digital channels and incorporate video and co-browse customer service options. Regardless of your brand’s metaverse maturity right now, the time has come to begin envisioning how you will take care of your customers in whatever world they are.
Shannon Flanagan is VP of Global Strategy at Talkdesk. She has been retailing since college, both in stores and as a buyer, merchant, consultant, sales leader and strategist. She’s been an executive with Gap, Lands’ End and Macy’s, defining and managing strategic initiatives, with expertise in omnichannel transformation. She has also worked with hyper-growth and Fortune 500 companies during her time with Accenture, Infor and Slalom.