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Impact of the metaverse on the retail industry

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This report looks at the potential impact of the metaverse on the retail sector. It explores many of the key themes at a high level and looks at what this emerging technology could mean for retailers and brands in the future.

The insights are useful as a introduction to the topic and serve as a ‘talking point checklist’ for more productive meetings on the subject.

 

The report is divided into three main sections:

Section 1: Introduces the metaverse concept and takes a look at look at the key themes 

Section 2: Examines at the role of retailers and brands and what questions are being asked about fittng into this virtual world

Section 3: Discusses some of the key concerns such as cyber security, legal and ethical issues for user safety

 

What the metaverse means for retail report - Retail Economics

 

Introduction

Key points

  • The metaverse is currently largely conceptual, although significant investment is occurring
  • There are still many unanswerable questions concerning its precise evolution
  • The metaverse is part of Web 3.0 next generation computing services

Is the metaverse going to be ‘the next big thing’ for retail? This is the question futurists, technologists, and now retail leaders are asking. ‘Metaverse’ is currently a buzzword that is gaining heavy traction; and if the technology is widely adopted in the future, society could be on the brink of a new commercial frontier.

Although the specific direction and adoption of the metaverse remains opaque, the vision of many Silicon Valley tech-leads paints a picture whereby future societies could shift on a similar magnitude to that which was induced by the internet on life today.

 

Watch our short video on the metaverse

 

 

Many activities conducted in the real world could, in theory, be catered for in the metaverse. This includes how people work, shop, play, exercise, learn, socialise, and many other activities. The tech-literature boasts limitless creativity potential with many areas for value creation. The total addressable market (TAM) for the metaverse has been staked at around $8 trillion globally in the future, and $4 trillion in China alone (Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs).

This being so, the metaverse might just be the next big thing. It is akin to the genesis of a second real world sub-reality weaved together by ‘Web 3.0’ technology. Assuming the impact of the metaverse is significant, a profound shift in the way society operates is a distinct possibility, together with many challenges and opportunities.

 

" How will our proposition fit into the metaverse?

 

Integrated with numerous forms of digital currency, the metaverse will act as a vector for the development of the virtual economy where virtual products and services are traded. Moreover, as functions of the metaverse bleed into the real world (e.g. purchasing food in a virtual store and collecting it in the real world), virtual and real word consequences will become increasingly indistinguishable.

Although the metaverse is still immature and is conceptual for the most part, certain fashion brands have moved early to explore possibilities with virtual stores and merchandise.

For many retailers and brands, engaging with the metaverse is a step into the unknown and elicits questions such as:

1. What products and services can be sold?

2. How will products and services be marketed?

3.  How will customer acquisition and relationships change?

4. What skillsets or partnerships will be required?

5. How will our proposition fit into the metaverse?

6. What kind of strategies and investment is required?

 

Many of these questions remain ‘unanswerable’ at present due to lack of data and technological immaturity. However, these are the types of questions that many boards will need to address more thoroughly if...

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Metaverse avatar - Retail Economics

 

Section 1: What is the metaverse?

Key points

  • The metaverse is essentially ‘more engaging 3D internet’
  • There are different virtual ‘worlds’ users can explore
  • The metaverse includes digital currencies and tokens linked to real-world money
  • Metaverse applications include gaming, ecommerce, music, education, socialising, and other forms of entertainment

 

Currently, there is no universally accepted definition of the metaverse. However, put simply, the metaverse is a ‘more engaging 3D internet’. It is a network of shared virtual spaces, designed to host interaction in virtual 3D environments.

These virtual environments are digital worlds (or ‘verses’) where users can ‘meet’, form communities and interact in real time. The worlds can be three-dimensional representations of either a real setting (e.g. an existing building), or imaginary environments.

Visitors to these worlds ‘exist’ and operate by means of an avatar – a ‘virtual you’. However, avatars take multiple forms, not just human. Currently, many avatars take the form of a cartoon-stylised character, similar to a Lego character, with both human and non-human attributes.

The metaverse can be viewed using a Virtual Reality (VR) headset (e.g. Oculus Quest 2), or simply on a screen. This may evolve in the future with more sophisticated technology such as next generation ‘smart glasses’, or further out, retinal implants or brain-computer interfaces for instance.

Metaphorically, once ‘inside the internet’, users can explore various worlds for multitude purposes, to: play, work, shop, trade, learn, ‘visit’ real places, meet potential partners; in fact, most real word activities will likely be catered for in some form within the metaverse.

The concept of the metaverse was recently popularised by the tech-giant Meta Platforms – who, on 28 October 2021, changed their name from Facebook. Since the announcement, many companies have been scrabbling to figure out how they are going to fit into the metaverse.

Currently, the metaverse is primarily conceptual and a far cry from that compared to notions portrayed in fictional accounts such as the film Ready Player One (Speilberg, 2018). However, if the metaverse evolves into a mature economy, it could spell the beginning of a fully-fledged, digital network of interrelated technological, commercial and sociological frameworks that will require new ways of thinking, new values, and new modes of being.

 

 

How did we get here?

The birth of the internet within the public domain came online in 1983. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that it gained traction for general public use – this was Web 1.0. Approximately 15 years later Web 2.0 appeared, referring to the era of mobile internet and cloud computing. But society is now on the verge of Web 3.0 – defined by immersive experiences (VR and AR capability) and the metaverse.

‘Metaverse’ is a composite term. Analogous to ‘universe’, the metaverse is an all-encompassing realm ‘beyond’ (meta) our revolving world (verse). The term’s origin is commonly attributed to the American writer Neal Stephenson, who in 1992, mentioned the term in his science fiction novel Snow Crash.

Approximately 30 years ago, the metaverse concept was relegated to the realms of science fiction. 20 years later, early forerunners started to surface in a cruder form within the gaming industry. Here, a community of likeminded users converged onto a central digital platform to compete, create and socialise in an escapist environment.

 

Figure 1: Google searches for 'metaverse' 

 

Google searches for metaverse

Source: Google Trends

 

Second Life, a multimedia online virtual platform, was released in 2003. Users had an avatar to explore the game and could buy virtual products with real world currency.

Three years later, Roblox was released in 2006, providing a platform for both users to create and play games. It rose in popularity in the latter half of the 2010s, to today where it is one of the most popular gaming platforms in the world hitting 43.2 million daily active users in Q2 2021 (Accenture), with over 202 million monthly active users.

Today, the game features its own currency Robux, which can be bought with real world money, to buy virtual goods. More recent MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) platforms include Minecraft, released in 2011, and Fortnite released in 2017.

In October 2021, Facebook Inc was rebranded to Meta Platforms Inc. This rebrand, with a strong VR/AR element, arguably heralded the beginnings of the ‘metaverse’ entering into the popular lexicon (Figure 1).

 

Features of the metaverse

Features of the metaverse - Retail Economics

 

Avatars

The avatar is a fundamental feature of the metaverse. It is essentially your ‘second (digital) self’ used to explore and navigate different worlds within it. Avatars can take numerous forms, humanoid, animal-human hybrid or pure fantasy form.

Users appear to be deeply engaged with their avatar, placing significant value on it. According to Roblox, 20% of their users update their avatars on a daily basis.

Once a user has adopted an avatar, they can enhance its appearance with virtual clothing and accessories which they either win, trade or purchase with digital currency or tokens (which can be tied to real world money).

 

Metaverse avatars - Retail Economics

 

It is here that a potential ‘avatar economy’ could emerge as brands recognise its commercial significance. In the future, established luxury fashion brands could be selling top hats made from ‘rainbow coloured tree bark’ with the brim trimmed with ‘illuminated firefly braiding’ for instance. It is likely that digital agencies will...

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Use cases

Although VR experiences are primarily featuring within the gaming industry currently, there have already been other use cases implemented.

Currently a handful of virtual music concerts have taken place (e.g. Fortnite collaborating with Ariana Grande and Travis Scott), together with brands like Nike, Gucci, Moncler and Vans that have also partnered with gaming platforms like Roblox to offer virtual stores and gaming experiences.

However, when framing the metaverse as ‘a second world’, other use cases become more evident. Consider many of the systems that comprise society today, then consider them requiring reconstruction in digital form – without the constraints of many physical laws (e.g. gravity): Virtual advertising, ‘travel’, banks, sports, schools, universities, clubs, societies, etc.

Although seemingly fantastical, where economic cases allow, the likelihood of these systems being developed is a real possibility. For instance, Grungo Colarulo, a New Jersey-based law firm, has already developed one of its ‘offices’ in the metaverse.

The metaverse will offer greater opportunities for remote working with improved levels of communication. For example...

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Figure 2: Use cases for the metaverse 

Use cases for the metaverse - REtail Economics
 

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Section 2: The role of retailers & brands

Key points

  • Businesses will need to rethink, and ensure their brand values align with that of their customers in both the real world and the metaverse
  • Corporate roles within the metaverse may encompass more societal, environmental and even political functions in the future
  • Retailers’ and brands’ propositions will likely incorporate life-style, entertainment and personal assistant services

 

Brands may have to reposition themselves due to new consumer values in the metaverse. They will likely need to reconsider their value framework, and accept that customers will expect more authenticity and seek more meaningful relationships; this could mean striving towards relationships that feel more like friends, mentors and lifestyle advisors to their ‘customers’.

Over the past few years, brands have already expanded their propositions, eyeing potential moves towards life-style services. Amazon is a ‘Prime’ example here, offering services including music, film, gaming and web-hosting. Again, the metaverse with its creative potential is likely to accelerate the trend for brands to offer lifestyle services, with winners quick to fulfil demand in emerging areas.

Businesses will not only compete with other businesses, but they will be competing with thousands of other ‘virtual distractions’. As such, brands will aspire to be closer to their customers. The abundance and richness of user generated data from VR headsets and digital interactions will help achieve this objective. By leveraging data science, profoundly deep insights on individual customers can be extracted – their behaviours, preferences, intentions, biometric data.

In this context, consumer perks, personalised promotions and privileges will likely be used in powerful marketing strategies in the metaverse. Therefore, increased potential for nurturing more intimate customer relationships is a distinct possibility. This may even result in personal assistant services offered to metaverse users where ‘retailers’ remind ‘customers’ to take their medication, remember appointments, or advise them on real-world relationships and...

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Metaverse products & services - Retail Economics

 

Metaverse products & services

Key points

  • The metaverse will need to be viewed as another place, not just a marketing channel
  • Gaming and music are being used as entry points to sell products
  • Virtual products and services will need to be developed with a new set of consumer values in mind
  • Gen Zs and Gen Alphas will be prime targets
  • Avatar enhancement will be a key market
  • Early entrants include Gucci, Nike, Vans and Moncler

 

If the metaverse is widely embraced, retailers and brands will need a radical rethink when considering the types of products and services they will offer. Companies will come to appreciate that the metaverse as another place – not just another channel.

Retailers will need to think carefully about how their products will be used, seen and ultimately valued by metaverse customers in light of shifting consumer values – experiences being valued above materialism (the concept of peak stuff driven by ESG principles). This value shift, dovetailed with the creative potential of the metaverse, will see experiences at the epicentre of retailer’s ‘metaverse strategies’.

For example, Nike partnered with Roblox in 2021 to develop ‘Nikeland’, a virtual world featuring sports fields, arenas and showrooms to offer Nike gear, alongside the opportunity to unlock ‘superpowers’ and explore the future of virtual sports.

Gucci also partnered with Roblox during the pandemic to create Gucci Gardens, a virtual version of the Gucci Garden in Florence that includes a Gucci Store, Gucci Museum and Gucci restaurant. It was an event that lasted just two weeks where in this virtual world, users were able to try on different virtual items that they could then purchase using their Robux.

 

Avatar

 

During the event, Gucci allowed user to buy a Queen Bee Dionysus bag for 475 Robux, or $5. The bag was only on sale for 1 hour, creating scarcity for the limited digital product. One of these virtual bags was later sold for over $4,000 – more than the actual bag in real life.

From early indications, it is evident that there is likely to be strong demand for digital assets. These assets are likely to fall into two categories: (1) pure digital; and (2) real world digital. Pure digital assets will reside in the metaverse in virtual form (e.g. avatar clothing); while real word digital assets will be digital representations of real-world objects that can be purchased and delivered to customers’ homes (e.g. iphones).

Walmart partnered with a digital agency in 2017 to develop a video showing what a VR shopping experience could look like. More recently, Tommy Hilfiger partnered with experiential ecommerce software provider Obsess to create a virtual store experience simulating the interior of one of their actual stores.

 

"It’s all about storytelling and self-expression. There are so many people who come together and socialise and connect with their friends, and they want to represent their digital selves through fashion.

     - Christina Wootton, Vice president brand partnerships, Roblox

 

Regarding services being offered in the metaverse, the same distinction applies. There will be pure digital services that are solely tied to the virtual realm, and real-world digital services that are promoted in the metaverse that are delivered in real life.

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Virtual marketing in the metaverse - Retail Economics

 

Virtual marketing

The metaverse will give rise to another digital plane within the marketing industry. Wherever there are billboards and advertisements in the real world, so too will there be similar virtual locations in the metaverse – from the back of toilet doors to the sweeping bends on racing tracks.

The marriage between virtual gaming and brand sponsorship will become closer, in a similar fashion to Intel Extreme Masters sponsoring Electronic Sports League (ESL), and Red Bull sponsoring Dota 2 events.

Competing for consumer attention will become hyper-competitive in the metaverse era. Currently within the attention economy, brands are grappling with posting their messages on different social media platforms and on websites. Future marketing strategies will be infinitely more complex, weaving threads between the real-world, online, and virtual worlds.

Specialist virtual marketing agencies are likely to emerge with keen knowledge of all the moving parts within the metaverse and how they operate in concert (e.g. brand values, target markets, customer profiles, big data, cyber security, crypto-currency and NFTs). A such, partnerships with digital agencies, particularly with those with data science capabilities, will likely be required.

[Excerpt: download the full report for more detail]

 

Intellectual property

Key points

  • Brands have already filed trademark applications signalling firm intentions
  • Legal filings for virtual merchandise, own-brand crypto-currency and non-fungible tokens have also been made
  • Cyber security will be a key challenge for businesses operating in the metaverse

 

The quantity of legal filings for intellectual property are key indicator of intent for businesses venturing towards the metaverse. A handful of companies have already been quietly filing for new trademarks to protect IP.

Nike, having made early strides, filed a number of trademark applications in November 2021 outlining plans to sell virtual apparel and footwear.

In December 2021, Walmart filed trademark applications for both virtual merchandise (e.g. virtual electronics, indoor and outdoor furniture, toys, apparel, books) and financial services (digital currency and tokens).

Abercrombie & Fitch, Urban Outfitters and Ralph Lauren have also filed trademarks indicating firm intent to develop and open a virtual store in the future.

[Excerpt: download the full report for more detail]

 

 

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs)

Key points

  • Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are purchasable virtual assets developed using blockchain technology
  • Companies can create their own NFTs

 

Businesses are continually researching and implementing ways to reduce payment friction and transactional hesitancy. Some brands are taking this a step further by intending to operate in the metaverse using their own crypto-currencies, and to ‘tokenize’ physical products and services by using non-fungible tokens (NFTs) underpinned by blockchain technology for proven authenticity.

OpenSea, the world's largest NFT marketplace, defines non-fungible tokens as ‘unique, digital items with blockchain-managed ownership’. As such, NFTs represent virtual goods or digital assets that can be verified and traced through blockchain technology. Examples include images, 3D objects, songs, videos and social media posts.

For high value items, using NFTs is an ideal way to secure purchases because they can be authenticated. This approach would be welcomed by designer fashion brands selling luxury assets for instance. NFTs can be traded online too. Companies such as Gap, Under Armour and Adidas have all offered up NFTs which have traded successfully, fetching significant sums on OpenSea.

 

Cyber security in the metaverse - Retail Economics

Section 3: Concerns: cyber security, legal & ethical

Key points

  • Current cyber security solutions may fall short in dealing with new risks associated with emerging vulnerabilities in the metaverse due to its architecture
  • Unprecedented legal challenges will require new laws, regulations and agencies to effectively manage conflict
  • The need for robust ethical frameworks, prior to the rollout of the metaverse is vital to mitigate against risks associated with data privacy, harm to vulnerable users and adverse health effects

 

As the metaverse evolves, it will not be without its complications. Issues around cyber security, intellectual property, and ethical considerations will no doubt require a multifaceted approach to provide a secure user environment. Many of the key hurdles have already been identified with ongoing R&D activity focussed on presenting viable solutions. This section takes a brief look at some of these key concerns.

 

Cyber security

Cybersecurity and cybercrime is evolving rapidly and becoming more sophisticated. Advancing digital agency facilitated by AR, VR and IoT (Internet of Things) presents ever increasing opportunities for hackers.

Naturally, as the metaverse matures, cyber security will play an increasingly important role in generating confidence for consumers. Organisations will require advanced systems of assessing risks and vulnerabilities to ringfence their assets and interests.

The metaverse is likely to present an entirely new genre of cyberattacks beyond conventional phishing, malware, and hacking, due to its infrastructure. Additional targets will include cryptocurrency wallets, NFTs, avatar IDs, and possibly the digital infrastructure governing virtual worlds.

 

The Identity Theft Research Center (ITRC) shows that recorded data breaches increased by 17% in 2021 compared to 2020.

 

Currently, human error still remains the major contributing factor for cybercrime, causing 95% of all digital security breaches (IBM, Cyber Security Intelligence Index Report). In the metaverse era, it is likely that companies will have to enhance all aspects of their in-house digital security with improved staff practices, advanced passwords, email vigilance, and...

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Legal frameworks

New ideas, products and services often require new laws, practices and specialisms. The metaverse is no exception here. In fact, it is likely that entirely new areas of law will emerge as the technology matures due to its far-reaching societal implications if widely adopted.

The metaverse, with its many facets, will present a ‘library’ of new legal implications. These are likely to include: (1) potential challenges concerning intellectual property rights (digital assets and trademarks); (2) competition law (anti-trust, price setting, monopolies and mergers); (3) cyber security (data privacy and protection); and (4) financial markets law (digital currencies and NFTs).

Regulatory authorities are also likely to face challenges with preparing for an entirely new set of responsibilities, user behaviours and values.

The current legal framework is already being tested with companies filing trademark applications to secure intellectual property rights; but unprecedented situations will arise, highlighting ‘grey areas’ which are likely to require laws amendments and regulations. For example, establishing who bears responsibility for data processing in an entirely decentralised network, could be challenging. Also, how privacy notices are displayed, particularly with...

[Excerpt: download the full report for more detail]

 

Ethical and moral implications issues metaverse - Retail Economics

 

Ethical issues

There are many ethical considerations that require addressing if metaverse participants are to operate in a safe and secure environment. These considerations are likely to become more complex with additional online features, opportunities and targets; but arguably, the resulting harm from abuse could also be more intense due to greater human sensory connection with this digital realm.

Data privacy

The metaverse will undoubtedly present consumers with new and exciting ways to access products and services. However, use of VR and AR devices (and brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) currently being developed) will lead to a new class of data harvesting which will likely capture a range of user thoughts and intentions, from the mundane, to intimate ‘secrets’. It is likely that user engagement with the metaverse will result in a trade-off with their data privacy.

Much of this data can, and is likely, to be permanently stored on blockchain technology. With the use of AI, machine learning and data mining techniques, deep insights can be extracted from this data to construct an extremely accurate profile for every user.

Although many online privacy policies are explicit, they are often consented to in absence of full understanding of its implications. This is likely to be the case with privacy policies in the metaverse; meaning personal data will likely be stored and could be used for purposes that users may not have consented to if they had full comprehension of policy implications. Therefore, policies could be presented using more lay terminology with greater transparency of its implications.

User protection

Protecting vulnerable users and children from cyber bullying, cyber stalking, online sexual harassment, and even user addiction (gaming disorder) is vital to mitigate against any potential harm. With Roblox for instance, 54% of its 202 million monthly users are under 12 years old (Roblox Corporation, 2020). Using this as an indicator, it suggests that the initial wave of metaverse participants will be younger, more vulnerable users.

Furthermore, robust measures need to be put in place to restrict children’s access to different ‘worlds’ that feature extreme violence or explicit adult content. In a BBC investigation reported in February 2022, the NSPCC warned that some apps in the virtual-reality metaverse are ‘dangerous by design’. The report also showed that a researcher posing as a 13-year-old girl witnessed ‘grooming, sexual material, racist insults and a rape threat’ in the virtual-reality world.

Retailers and brands also need to be aware of risks associated with user health and wellbeing. There is arguably an absence of robust ethical frameworks addressing user addiction (gaming disorder) and adverse health effects from prolonged exposure to hyper-realistic experiences with VR headsets and remotes which can trigger sensory overload inducing fits, seizures and other unknown psychological harm.

It is essential that...

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Impact of the Metaverse on the  retail sector

 

Conclusion

Currently, the metaverse is primarily conceptual, although significant levels of investment are being sunk into its infrastructure, app development and issues concerning intellectual property. This signals firm intent for many organisations to engage with the metaverse more long term and to exploit opportunities afforded by this technology.

Early virtual reality (VR) experiences are already being created by brands within a gaming and entertainment context to sell virtual merchandise, however the full extent of use cases is still yet to emerge and has the potential to be vast in scope.

Many key concerns still remain unaddressed. These include aspects within cyber security, law and ethics; and it will be vital to implement robust frameworks addressing these aspects to ensure a safe and secure user environment.

When considering the metaverse as another place, not just as a marketing channel, retailers and brands will need to assess how they are going to best fit into this virtual space and what aspects of their business may need rethinking.

They will need to consider how their products and services will be viewed, used and traded, because the metaverse has the potential to profoundly impact the customer journey, and customer relationships in the future.

If the metaverse is widely embraced, it is likely that businesses will need to consider a shift in brand positioning and proposition to remain relevant in a new digital age defined by more immersive experiences.

Although many unanswered questions remain, certainty exists in that the metaverse will undoubtedly garner increasing attention as businesses begin to leverage opportunities from this technology as it matures.

 

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About this report

This report is published by Retail Economics and looks at the potential impact of the metaverse on the retail sector. It explores many of the key themes at a high level and looks at what this emerging technology could mean for retailers and brands in the future. The insights are useful as a introduction to the topic and serve as a ‘talking point checklist’ for more productive meetings on the subject.

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