Retail and the metaverse: The time is right for exploration

NRF 2022: While the metaverse is young, numerous entry points exist for experimentation

Not yet up to speed on what the metaverse will mean for retail? It’s not just you. A recent study from YouGov and The Drum showed that only 31 percent of U.S. adults polled had a somewhat or very good understanding of what the metaverse even is. Those ages 45-64 were most likely to not have any knowledge of the metaverse at all.

Cassandra Napoli, senior strategist, WGSN Insight, filled in some gaps with “Retailing in the Metaverse,” a featured session on the StarWind Stage at NRF 2022: Retail’s Big Show. WGSN has been tracking the metaverse since 2018, she said, but it’s only since 2020 that futurists, economist and others have been making connections to retail. Those connections are continuing at rapid-fire pace, with new launches and experiences seemingly every day. And this shared digital realm will continue to drive culture and design, enabling new modes of expression and experience.

NRF 2022 event recap

Take a look at the NRF 2022: Retail’s Big Show event recap to learn more about this year’s sessions.

When Facebook announced that it would become a metaverse company, it may have been met with “eyerolls and gasps,” Napoli said. But the move was strategic in terms of trying to win back Gen Z. In 2012, 94 percent of teens were on Facebook. In 2021, it was only 27 percent. Younger consumers are most likely to be interested in the metaverse, and ready for brands to step up.

Of course, no one entity will be responsible for powering the metaverse alone. By 2024, according to Bloomberg Intelligence, the global metaverse revenue could approach $800 billion.

Napoli’s talk was chock-full of examples of movement in that direction. Warner Bros. Pictures, for example, took to Roblox for an In the Heights block party. The British Fashion Council nominated digital designers within the metaverse for its fashion awards, and created an in-game simulation of the ceremony. Gucci attracted 20 million people to its Gucci Garden experience on Roblox  over a two-week period. Nike launched NIKELAND on Roblox, a 3D experience and virtual showroom that allows players to complete, explore and outfit their avatars. P&G revealed its BeautySPHERE virtual storytelling world. Balenciaga and OTB Group have announced dedicated business units for the metaverse.

Match Group has plans for a dating metaverse and avatar-based virtual experiences. Stanford University is offering virtual reality classes in which students are fully immersed in VR environments. And one South Korean game publisher has unveiled a plan for employees to work in a virtual office, as avatars, by Q3 2022. 

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And the list goes on.

Mass adoption will take time. Companies will need to hire new people to power it, and dedicated teams will continue to emerge. At some point, having a virtual avatar will be as common as having a social media account today, and these avatars will extend the scope of storytelling for brands. 

Napoli’s top takeaway, then, is to experiment. While the metaverse will take decades to reach its full potential, she said, there are numerous entry points already available, from gaming platforms like Fortnite and Roblox to AR opportunities and NFTs (non-fungible tokens, or one-of-a-kind digital assets). “Brands must begin to wrap their heads around the immersive virtual spaces and plan their corporate metaverse strategy or run the risk of falling behind,” she said.

It's also important to pay attention to generational differences. The metaverse represents an escape to Millennials and Gen Z, but Generation Alpha, born between 2011 and 2025, is “rebranding to Generation Metaverse,” growing up online in virtual worlds. Brands that meet them in those spaces will make a lasting impact on their lives. Napoli also advises enabling AR marketing and commerce experiences, and closely monitoring new sales strategies and opportunities. “Digital awe,” she said, “is really going to help you cut through the noise, and we really believe in that for leveraging interest among Gen Z and Millennials in particular.”

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