The science (fiction) of virtual shopping
Can you believe ecommerce has been around since the early 90s? That’s right. We’ve been shopping online since hip hop and oversized plaid shirts came on the scene – and in much the same way these past 30 years. Interestingly enough, the now much-hyped metaverse has also been around for three decades – at least in the world of science fiction. The term first came to light in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, a cyberpunk novel from the early 1990s. The story takes place in a bleak dystopian future where the protagonists flee to the parallel metaverse to escape from the real world.
Our ecommerce experience has changed significantly since the early days. Broadband internet made browsing ecommerce shops much easier; smartphones, apps, and responsive websites encouraged the shift to mobile ecommerce (also known as m-commerce); and new buy-now, pay later options prompted more of us to click the buy button. But all of that just might feel, well, 20th century once the metaverse takes off. This brave new virtual world has the potential to transform ecommerce from two-dimensional online shops to a fully immersive, 3D experience.
What will virtual shopping look like?
Not even those who promote the metaverse are able to offer a reliable definition of what it is. That hasn’t stopped Silicon Valley’s team of tech nerds in California from plugging away at the ‘next big thing’ for a while now, busily upgrading the internet to Web 3.0 – a virtual cosmos were the laws of physics no longer appear to apply.
But what does the metaverse look like? And what will shopping in the metaverse be like? Maybe something like this: one moment you're scrolling through some PowerPoint slides in an online meeting and the next you’re strolling along a busy virtual shopping street. You pop in and out of your favorite stores, which just happen to be right next to each other, like the favorites tab in your browser. After you make a purchase, instead of carrying it out of the store in a bag, your avatar hands it to a virtual DHL courier, who whisks it off to the online distribution center, where the virtual and real worlds meet and the physical copy of the non-fungible token (NFT) you just bought makes its way to your real-world home.
Tech futurist and self-dubbed ‘Godmother of the Metaverse’ Cathy Heckl imagines virtual “vending machines” appearing out of nowhere as soon as you think of a product you need. It may sound a bit far-fetched and even fantastical, but many like Cathy believe it’s only a matter of time.
In the metaverse, a space where the physical and virtual worlds meet, various technologies and digital applications will allow people to move freely through worlds, such as concerts and venues, and stores. Just put on virtual reality glasses and enter is one idea, at least. Technologies like Blockchain (a kind of digital ledger), NFTs, and Virtual Realities (VR) will make life in the metaverse possible. Blockchain and NFTs will provide digital proof of ownership, and a mix of virtual and augmented realities will create the experience, much like in many life-like video games today.
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Is metaverse ecommerce the next online shopping megatrend?
No matter what metaverse ecommerce looks like, people are ready to embrace it. In fact, a recent poll by McKinsey indicates that shopping in the metaverse will likely be the most popular activity. More respondents (48%) showed interest in a virtual reality (VR) shopping experience than in VR gaming (40%). These results are on par with other research, such as 2020 study in Singapore and Australia showing that around half of consumers are currently interested in virtual shopping.
Many experts say that the Metaverse doesn’t just represent the future of the Internet but that it will eventually become the most powerful economic force in the world. A multi-trillion-dollar industry. It helps that big tech companies like Meta, Microsoft, and Google are driving development.
But where is this all going? For the most part, we don’t know yet. A lot is still unknown about the metaverse, especially the deeper into the details you dig. No one can say for certain whether the metaverse soon dies a natural death, as did hype around the virtual reality gaming world Second Life. Some describe this moment like watching a film you've seen before but you still don't know how it will end.
Will shopping on the metaverse change ecommerce logistics?
Because the metaverse is still in its infancy, we are just beginning to explore the implications it might have on the logistics industry – and the opportunities they might present. After all, pallets of cat food bought in the virtual world for real-life pets still have to be physically shipped from real warehouses to real customers. But what happens if the metaverse radically alters consumer behavior? What impact would that happen on the real-world logistics business?
That's the big question, but we are starting to see some initial signs of things to come, and we’re monitoring the trend and its relevance to the future of logistics.
- New customer channels
One thing for sure is that the metaverse means another sales channel for retailers and other organizations to drive more customer engagement and business. Roblox, for example, has over 50 million active daily users who are spending more time and money on the platform. Big media players have also set up shop in the metaverse. The Disney Music Emporium, based on experiential ecommerce platform Obsess, offers both casual and lifelong Disney fans a unique experience to discover the history that has shaped some of the most iconic films from the last century. Nike jumped on to the scene with their virtual experience-based store, Nikeland. Nearly seven million people from around the world visited the metaverse store in the first five months, according to Nike.
- Warehousing services for collectibles
With fashion and other companies in the retail sector venturing into the metaverse, NFTs are being used to provide digital proof of ownership for physical objects that are bought, sold, and traded. As a result, we may see rising demand for warehouses to store real-world items secured by NFTs similar to the way gold bars were used to secure dollar bills in the 1950s. And with people buying plots of land on metaverse platforms like The Sandbox, we can envision the need for crypto postage stamps and virtual transport services, with DHL avatars picking up and dropping off packages with a smile.
- Supply chain simulations
Testing out new supply chain configurations can be risky, but the existence of virtual landscapes opens up the potential for simulating new concepts and dramatically reducing the risk of real-world supply chain disruptions and the potential damage they can cause. In the metaverse, future tests could be carried out in a separate virtual dimension. How exactly this would work is another unanswered question. Experts speculate that the metaverse will act as a platform on which to experiment with digital twins. Collecting data from sensors and replicating these in a duplicate world would give logistics leaders the much-needed space to visualize, create, and optimize new supply chain configurations without the pressure of real-world consequences weighing on their shoulders.
In a new era of virtual shopping, where does logistics come in?
See what is in front of an ecommerce order.
Shopping in the metaverse is going to allow consumers to interact with brands online like never before. A digital storefront will be free from any physical barriers. People will be able to meet and shop together anytime and anywhere – and retailers will have the opportunity to engage with consumers in unrivalled ways and offer hyper-personalized experiences. That experience is going to have to include what happens to purchases after the money transfers from one digital wallet to another.
We don’t know what the future holds for the metaverse. But we can rely on this: As long as people shop there – and all signs say they will – logistics will be the bridge between metaverse ecommerce and their real-world homes.
The vision is clear. But widespread virtual shopping in the metaverse will take some time. So while we keep an eye on the metaverse, we’re keeping one foot in the real world while we explore ways to build that bridge to the many virtual worlds to come.
Published: December 2022