Is the metaverse the future of retail?

Considered to be the next digital revolution, the metaverse could completely redefine e-commerce. But what exactly are we talking about when we say metaverse? And how is it an opportunity for retail?


The metaverse is not a recent concept. It was predicted in 1991 by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his cult novel “Snow Crash”, then became popular more widely in 2018 after the release of Steve Spielberg’s blockbuster Ready Player One, which was itself an adaptation of the book of the same name written a few years earlier by Ernest Cline, it represents a new age for the web, that of a three-dimensional, immersive Internet, incarnated with the help of avatars, accessible thanks to virtual reality, and which reproduces all aspects of reality. A digital duplicate of the world that offers a hypnotic and never-ending journey through the network. 


Brought to life through platforms like Roblox, The Sandbox, Fortnite, Minecraft and Meta/Facebook’s Horizon worlds, these new digital environments already have a strong appeal for brands. Most of them have already stepped inside. In 2021, luxury brand Gucci marketed the Dionysus bag on Roblox. That same year, Balenciaga was the first fashion house to enter the arcane world of the video game Fortnite to sell virtual clothing in the form of NFTs (Non Fungible Tokens). Also in 2021, Nike created the Nikeland platform on Roblox to sell virtual trainers, while Van’s followed suit with the launch of Van’s World. At the start of 2022, Coca-Cola launched the virtual drink Coca-Cola Zero Sugar Byte on Fortnite. 


From Zara to Stella Artois, Nissan to Tommy Hilfiger, Louis Vuitton to Carrefour, Disney to Tinder, even Adidas, Ferrari, Mastercard and Rexona… This is no longer a fad. It is now a massive phenomenon. And everything points to it only being the beginning. 


Immersive marketing.


In December 2021, a study by American bank Morgan Stanley estimated that metaverse projects could generate additional revenue of 50 billion dollars per year in the fashion and luxury markets by 2030, in addition to the profits gained through physical points of sale and traditional e-commerce. For its part, Bloomberg Intelligence predicted a potential turnover of 800 billion dollars per year for all sectors and brands combined from 2024. The metaverse looks like a new retail Eldorado with an unparalleled sales strike force.


Because what makes these new environments so attractive and unique is the disturbing possibility of merging the real and the virtual. The boundary that used to separate the physical world from the digital world becomes blurred. Immersivity allows us to faithfully reproduce the experiences that consumers have in real life, while enhancing the value of the products thanks to the storytelling that mobilises all of digital’s best assets. Any offer thus becomes truly spectacular. 


Furthermore, NFTs make it possible, by being non-fungible, i.e. non-tradable, to attribute a unique value to a digital product. This is a first. It is also a particularly effective way to meet the expectations of the customers of tomorrow. “The new generations, and more particularly the Alpha generation, no longer differentiate between what is virtual and what is physical. The prism of the metaverse to help brands is to prepare them for the arrival of a whole range of products that will be designed for digital use and will no longer have a material existence.” explains Neal Robert, co-founder of BEM Builders, one of France’s first “metaverse factories”. 


To accelerate e-commerce, all these elements make up a promise that is much stronger than a faster, more powerful and latency-free Internet or ever more intelligent and serviced sales platforms. In reality, never before in the history of retail has a technology contained as much reinventive power. But the prospects do not end there. 


The haptic revolution.


In order for the shopping experience to be complete, there is still one thing missing, the senses. By influencing the judgement that consumers make on a product, touch and smell play a fundamental role in determining their decision making. The lack of sensoriality has always been e-commerce’s Achilles heel. This is all about to change thanks to haptic devices that add the sensation of touch to digital thanks to gloves or suits that are fitted with sensors. The technology to do this has been around for several years, and it’s only getting better.


At the end of 2022, the Japanese company AI Silk Corporation unveiled the next-generation Lead Skin haptic gloves, developed in partnership with Tohoku University of Technology. Made with conductive fibres that act like a network of electrodes, these gloves can simulate the sensation of gripping with unprecedented precision, with a feeling that extends from your palms all the way to your fingers. This means that in the future, it will be possible not only to touch, but also to grasp an object in virtual reality. 


In France, the CNRS are also working on this idea. Researchers at the Institute of Intelligent Systems and Robotics Laboratory have developed a device that generates “multitouch” feedback to simulate touch with a greater finesse. According to Betty Semail, a researcher at the Electrotechnics and Electrical Power Laboratory in Lille, it will soon be possible to “design a device that helps a consumer choose by sensing the texture of a fabric from a store’s website”. Going further still, the “Season Traveller” headset, invented by Samsung, can simulate smells, humidity or the sensation of wind on the skin. 


E-shopping therefore has every chance of becoming multi-sensory. Applied to the metaverse, this opens up incredible possibilities as emotional leverage is fundamental to facilitating sales. However, there is still an essential step to be taken for the promises of these new digital environments to be fulfilled, that of equipment adoption. “The democratisation of the metaverse will come with the democratisation of devices. In this respect, there has been a huge growth in virtual reality headset sales in 2022. In the near future, the technology will become more and more accessible, to the point where it will be used by the vast majority of consumers,” concludes Neal Robert. All the signs are pointing in the right direction for the metaverse to play a key role in tomorrow’s retail.