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How Retail Should Enter the Metaverse

Retail is just like any other business category — a buzzword symbolizing an abstract concept gains traction, and the excitement takes over before there’s actually time to use that word in a sentence. Essentially, we lack a couple of concrete examples of how that idea could play out for brands in a winning way.

The issue with a buzzword becoming something more is that often, the term is too squishy — it’s introduced in a vague way across the industry, and thought leaders end up all discussing it differently. Sometimes it’s that the idea is being discussed in a context of up to five years from now, too far down the line for people to concretely think about it. Other times we struggle because the consumer behaviors required to accelerate adoption are so opposite of what’s ingrained that there will be minimal ROI for the daring retailers who attempt to be first movers.

The metaverse checks the box on the aforementioned first barrier of the term being too squishy, that it can be implemented too quickly (thereby checking the box on barrier two), and attitudinally for some consumers, barrier three as well. 

However, the metaverse isn’t something to be feared. It’s actually a compilation use case of “older” technology that already exists. For example, augmented reality and virtual reality have both been in use by some brands since the early 2010s. While these technologies were not nearly as welcomed by shoppers as brands hoped, the pandemic has motivated an interest and a use case.

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Forced to stay at home, consumers had no choice but to figure out how to simulate sharing in-person experiences with loved ones virtually. AR, VR, and digital hangouts have become embedded within consumers’ lives without much notice, and these are the first level of technology being discussed in the metaverse. Ok, NFTs as well, but those have also become a mainstream topic of conversation in the last year.

The metaverse will become a thing because it already is a thing. And just like anything else, there will be constant iteration, innovation, and increased adoption. That’s the bit where we don’t have as clear of a picture — the “where do we go from here?” The brands that best understand how to play in the metaverse in the most consumer-friendly way will do the following:

Go with the grain of consumer behaviors.

Incorporate technology relevantly and intuitively in order to continually facilitate adoption as innovation happens. Launching new tech-based capabilities that force consumers to drastically change their behaviors, or that slow them down while accomplishing tasks, will cause more friction and create a barrier too significant to risk.

For example, don’t entice consumers to abandon one form of entertainment in order to hop into a metaverse concert or view a lengthy piece of content in the middle of something they’re already enjoying, such as the Super Bowl. Schedule that metaverse event for before or after. Similarly, some metaverse capabilities will need to be thoroughly introduced and explained to convey their full benefits to consumers versus simply offering them. Recognize that there is, and will be, a learning curve that brands should assist with.

Digital and physical should elevate each other, not replace each other.

Leverage technology to provide something real life wouldn’t or can’t, and lean into the physical elements that technology can never replace. For example, when making a quick online purchase decision in real time, the buyer can “nudge” helpful peers (friends/family members) to look at that item through a direct notification to the basket that shows the buyer trying on the item. The helpers can click yes or no immediately to sway the buyer.

In real life, this would have required the shopper to leave the store and come back another day with that person, then another day with another person, or the shopper would have had to share a one-dimensional photo with the stakeholders — not nearly as accurate. On the flip side, for a milestone shopping moment such as buying a wedding dress, create a virtual room to accompany the physical room for the relatives/friends that can’t be there — but don’t completely do away with the opportunity for the group to be together in person for the occasion. That should still be available!  

Reward participation.

Use this as a chance to really co-create with consumers and to get their opinions on as much as you possibly can. The metaverse can actually empower a lean, mostly made-to-order/mass-customization business model, where consumers get exactly what they want and there’s minimal waste (hopefully) as a result.

We’re already starting to see retailers such as Forever21 and Timberland think about this world as a continual focus group fueling R&D, but retailers should reward consumers for their engagement in this model in more ways than just production. Producing the items consumers help design is a great start, but content should also be thought of in this way — 1:1 marketing can take on a whole new meaning in the metaverse.

For example, tap into the Cameo approach and utilize exclusive influencer collaborations for tailored messages, one-off designs and hangouts in the virtual world. When Adele last-minute postponed some of her Vegas shows, she sent voice memos via Instagram to devastated concertgoers. Imagine if she had instead met them for a quick tea in the metaverse.

Develop the right tools for data management.

Think extremely strategically about how all this data will get organized and how it will be used. The metaverse will be what gives brands the ability to fully and seamlessly map online-to-offline and offline-to-online behaviors and purchase decisions. Even now, with how frequent omnichannel shopping behaviors are, retailers still struggle to track how a consumer discovered and researched an item they end up buying in brick-and-mortar. The metaverse will leave minimal questions for retailers in this way, providing ample amounts of complete data. In order for retailers to avoid squandering the chance to optimize this data, CDPs will become even more valuable, and they’ll have to be highly advanced for this new era. 


Melissa Minkow is Director of Retail Strategy at CI&T, a global digital solutions provider for some of the world’s largest retailers and companies. Previously, she was a senior principal advisor focusing on omni-channel, ecommerce and social commerce at global research and advisory company Gartner and was a business analyst in merchandising strategy at Target. At CI&T, Minkow is responsible for synthesizing strategy, insights and data to help identify actionable retail services trends and lead strategic sales and client engagements. She is a retail futurist whose methodology is rooted in cross-industry consumer insights and innovation.

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