Thursday, October 20, 2022

What the Metaverse Could Mean for Retail

My wife and I are enthusiastic backpackers.  We buy gear that is ultralight and designed to take the abuse of rugged wilderness environments.  For many years we have frequented the outdoor equipment store REI to purchase our clothing, gear and supplies.  Recently, however, REI has stopped stocking their stores with a full range of products.  They only seem to stock a small selection of sizes and colors, and refer you to their website for all other options.  

As an example, on a recent trip to REI, I had a shopping list of four items. Each time I asked a customer service person about one of the products on my list, I was given the same answer, "Visit our website... we don't carry it in our stores."  

On the way home I felt disappointment. The trip seemed both a waste of time and fuel.  Is the disappointment I felt shared by tens of thousands of other customers?  If so, will this shared disappointment lead to the demise, or the transformation of physical stores?  


My REI experience and a question from my boss, Futurist Frank Diana, got me thinking.  How might the Metaverse potentially impact the stores of the future?  

The Metaverse can be thought of as new space.  Space where new kinds of experiences can be generated and tested.  Spaces that can be used to create value for consumers and vendors.  It can be used as a digital showroom where customers with 3D goggles test and interact with new products.  It can be an executive briefing center where business is negotiated.  Your imagination is the only limit.  

What if REI had a 360 degree digital showroom, where every product, size, color and option can be found, tried on, examined, explained and considered.  What if you could take those products virtually into the Sawtooth Mountains in central Idaho.  What if the digital 3D showroom also had cold and hot wind-machines, aroma generators, vibrations and tilting floors where every product was scaled accurately and available for examination in the combined virtual and physical universe?  Would this realistic digital/physical experience be the reason people would return to stores in the future?

The Metaverse potentially can change the way most products and services are marketed and sold.  What if 3D goggles, spatial sound and a Metaverse supported universe could break apart every product to detail its components, and/or ingredients?  What if we could examine supply chains for sustainability by traveling across the digital world and examining suppliers, and even their suppliers?  What if the backstory on a product, company or service could be accessed and experienced in the Metaverse?

In the sports world stadiums, and the physical space involved, are already being rethought.  What if rather than one giant team stadium that holds 80,000 fans in the middle of a parking lot, it could be replaced by hundreds of small digital experience stadiums around the country that could hold 500-2,000 people wearing 3D goggles and experiencing the vibrations, smells and spatial sound of being there?  Is this experience the future of the retail store, as well?

Can retail stores transform into virtual experience centers where products, companies, and services can be digitally demonstrated and displayed?  Will products have a default digital twin in the Metaverse that you and your avatar can test drive?

If physical products included digital twins in the Metaverse, what kinds of new and additional data would spin-off from physical consumers shopping in the Metaverse?  Not only would vendors get the normal website interaction data, but much, much more.  
  • How are the consumers' avatars using your digital twin product?  What is the use case?
  • What does the avatar like and not like about a product or its components based on their voice, action and facial expressions?
  • How long did an avatar examine each component of your product?  What were they looking at?  What questions did they voice?
  • If the avatar tested your product - what and where were they testing it?  Did they ride your digital e-bike in the Metaverse's cities, mountains or country lanes?
In a Metaverse world, consumers and their avatars will generate immense amounts of data that can feed artificial intelligence powered research into the:
  • Psychology of an avatar's actions
  • Psychology of an avatars facial expressions
  • Psychology of their voice expressions
  • Psychology of a customer's design preferences
  • Psychology of an avatar's social interactions in the Metaverse
  • Psychology of voice cadence and response speeds
  • Psychology of a conversation
The Metaverse has the potential of changing many of traditional retail processes and consumer behaviors.

Placing oneself into the Metaverse, however, means that everything you do, say, build, touch, and examine will emit digital exhaust that can be analyzed by others in the Metaverse.  The Metaverse potentially offers retail stores and product developers both new data sources and new strategies.

On the consumer side, we are likely to be presented with many new and innovative ways to shop for, experience and examine products, but it will come at a steep price.  Every action and interaction our Metaverse persona makes will be analysed by artificial intelligence systems running on supercomputers.  It will not take long for these massively powerful digital psychologists to know us even better than we know ourselves.  And once someone knows us better than we know ourselves, we become vulnerable to nefarious actors engaging in mind manipulation at scale.

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Kevin Benedict
Partner | Futurist at TCS
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***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.