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Connecting with Customers in Virtual Retail Experiences

How will shopping in the Metaverse compare with real-life experiences?
2022 CK Meta Web

Bergmeyer Senior Interior Designer Catherine Keywan questions whether virtual shopping could ever replace shopping in real life in part two of our series:

Designing the Future: The Meta-Dilemma on the Role of Designers in a Virtual World

Headlines around NFTs, stores in the Metaverse, and retailers playing in this new sandbox have society buzzing about the next shopping revolution. Retailers are not only ‘opening’ stores in the virtual Metaverse; entire malls are being designed to house them. When I first read headlines of virtual stores, I found them jarring. How could virtual shopping ever replace shopping IRL?

As I learn about the Metaverse, I understand the important role retail plays there. My misconception was that people were only buying real-world items, meaning they see a virtual backpack in a virtual store, and the real backpack arrives at their home. While this is an option, I learned shopping in the Metaverse is also shopping for an avatar, so the virtual backpack would be worn virtually by the avatar and is legally the owner’s property through the protection of NFTs. Retailers have a huge opportunity to enter this space with apparel for avatars to individualize their look, home decor to personalize their home, and places for avatars to visit; the options are endless.

That said, when designing for the Metaverse, designers are not designing for a human experience; they are designing for a human experience through an avatar’s experience.

Cues like the smell of a room, the tactile texture of a table, and nonverbal body language are not translated virtually. After society spent two years apart, everyone realized the importance of in-person connectedness and the valuable role interior designers and architects play in bringing people together. As more brands I admire open stores in the Metaverse, I ask, would I be as fulfilled designing a store never intended to be physically experienced by human beings?

With virtual products that never cross the real-world threshold, I also question whether this is a shopping experience or a gaming experience? At what point does the line between store designer and game designer blur? Can store designers still be “interior designers” if the stores never get built IRL? Talk about an identity crisis.

With brick-and-mortar experiences evolving and adapting to meet the needs and expectations of shoppers for each new generation, I believe virtual shopping should be experienced differently than in-store.

For example, without the constraints of gravity, merchandise does not need to be displayed on hangers. When location is infinite and travel nonexistent, a virtual mall seems unnecessary. Retailers should instead focus on creating authentically immersive experiences, educational opportunities, and social events that connect brand loyalists to the broader lifestyle of the brands they cherish. Focusing less on sales, and more on engagement, this is an opportunity for retailers to build a social community and to tell their brand's story more deeply. To be unique and complementary to shopping in real life, not replace it.

As for the online shopping experience, which hasn’t seen any transformative change in decades.... customers are still forced to scroll through a grid of images. But in the Metaverse, retailers can extend their brand beyond today’s e-commerce functionality in ways unimaginable.

During the pandemic, Balenciaga hosted their fashion show as an experience in a video game, Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow. This show opened my eyes to the possibility of new and exciting methods of online shopping. Would a virtual platform where you view objects at 360 degrees encourage more customers to make online purchases? Would branded events and social gatherings in the Metaverse that seamlessly link products to e-commerce facilitate more D2C purchases? I watched a webinar recently where MetaVRse cofounder Alan Smithson discussed how he envisions the future of shopping:

"I think we need to make shopping fun again. It doesn't need to even look like a mall. Like right now, we've designed a mall, but it could be a golf course, it could be a racetrack, it could be anything, right? So I think we really need to think outside the box of what could be when you give people unlimited access to really cool technologies so there's a great opportunity to create delight and fun experiences for people."

For me, as the Metaverse continues to develop, this quandary of virtually recreating experiences we as humans already know in the physical environment vs. creating new and different experiences - will inevitably continue to evolve for years to come. And our role as retail designers and architects will become more critical in shaping how these experiences are created, conceptualized, and built-in both the physical and virtual realms.

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