Why retailers should focus on ‘bricks-and-portal’ instead of the metaverse

Ever since Mark Zuckerberg’s surprising announcement that Facebook was rebranding to Meta, the “metaverse” has been the hottest topic in retail, with retailers and consumers alike becoming intrigued with the idea of virtual shopping and living.

The fashion industry seems to be especially enchanted with the idea of shopping virtual clothing collections and virtual catwalks. Brands including Balenciaga, Vans and Forever 21 have all been looking for ways to integrate their designs into hugely popular virtual worlds, such as Fortnite and Roblox.

However, if one thing was learnt last year following the numerous lockdowns and the resulting lack of social interaction, it is that the majority of people do not enjoy communicating solely in the virtual world. Human, physical interaction remains pivotal, from shaking hands, to picking up items in a shop.

This is where AI comes into its own – blending these two experiences together to offer a physical experience which is enhanced by the capabilities of artificial intelligence and VR tools.

These tools can help increase efficiency, conversions and brand-interest – but according to Ericsson Consumer Lab – they are also able to reinvigorate shopping centres and malls. This is why companies can benefit from focusing more on these physical, interactive experiences rather than on living and shopping in the metaverse or other virtual worlds.

Ericsson believes that AR glasses, waterproof VR glasses, haptic body suits and tactile gloves could all be part of consumers’ gear when they visit malls in 2030.

“The semi-public nature of shopping malls means latency bounds could more easily be controlled and next-generation experiences could be delivered early on,” said Ericsson’s head of research, Magnus Frodigh.

READ MORE: How Snap is helping augmented reality become a cornerstone of retail

Consumers not only expect hybrid mall experiences to be commonplace by 2030, but they actually want them, according to Ericsson’s research.

Dubbed ‘Bricks-and-portal’ facilities, they will be enabled by technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and programmable materials.

Ericsson’s head of research agenda Dr. Michael Björn agreed: “In fact, 35% of surveyed consumers think shopping malls are more likely to feature next-generation technology than homes, compared to just 14% who disagree.

“Shopping malls have long been high-tech focal points, with many featuring cinemas, game arcades, concert halls, bowling alleys and more. They likely will continue to play that role.”

The report also highlights the consumer-shared consensus that hybrid malls could impact local retail communities both positively and sustainably.

“If anything, the future might be increasingly localised, with 32% of respondents agreeing that high-tech shopping malls will make moving to small towns and rural areas more feasible and attractive – and just 13% disagreeing with this,” Björn added.

So how can bricks-and-portal shopping centres beat the metaverse and keep consumers in reality?

Telepresence technology and experiential retail

Nearly eight in 10 consumers expect to see event halls where telepresence technology will allow artists to perform digitally – appearing as if they were there in person, while in a different location entirely.

This means that in-person ‘livestreams’ can be made possible in experiential retail locations within a shopping centre.

Westfield’s Situ Live is one of the most exciting experiential retail spaces that could make use of such technology.

The store currently puts on experiential showcases, allowing customers to try out the product in question before purchasing it in-store, using a QR code. This approach refreshes the retail sector, offering a completely different customer service role.

Immersive beauty salons and hairdressers

Amazon opened its first ever Amazon Salon in London’s Spitalfield market last year, using an impressive range of technology which can help customers envisage their new looks before a scissor has been snipped. Before deciding upon a new look or style, Amazon Salon customers are able to use augmented reality colour bars to choose.

Credit: Amazon

Customers can simply point at the product they are interested in and the relevant information, including brand videos and educational content, will appear on a display screen in front of them.

The salon will also offer customers the latest hair-styling technology treatments such as hot scissors, hair steaming and more.

The prospect of using VR and AR to see how a new style would potentially look like is an attractive proposition for consumers, with seven in 10 expecting retail spaces to have the capability by 2030.

Credit: Amazon

On-demand sustainable shopping

One of the concepts which is particularly interesting for consumers is the ability to shop sustainably in on-site factories that recycle their old products there and then.

Around 32% of consumers engaged in adopting a more sustainable lifestyle last year, with 28% ceasing to purchase certain items as a result of ethical or environmental concerns, according to figures from Deloitte UK.

Separate research from weforum found that 66% of all respondents, and 75% of millennial respondents, said they consider sustainability when making a purchase.

VR mapping

According to Ericsson, three-quarters of consumers expect to be able to project their homes inside of furniture stores when trying out new products.

The fascination of 3D home rendering programs could be expanded so that consumers are able to virtually place items in their homes while still inside the shop, before deciding on whether to purchase or not.

This particular blend of AR with the real world is likely to resonate more with an older (home-owning) audience.

AI Health 

The future of retail pharmacy spaces could be expanded upon hugely, according to Ericsson’s report.

Some 77% of consumers foresee in-house medical centres housing drop in AI health scanners that can give near-instant health status updates and livestream doctor appointments, making some of the more frustrating elements of healthcare instantaneous.

So why should retailers continue to concentrate on retail technology instead of abandoning all progress made so far and ditching it to focus on the metaverse?

The answers – for there are a few – are simple. While virtual technology is undoubtedly very useful and has a huge amount of commercial application, it is best suited to a hybrid setting where customers can experience the joys and novelties of virtual and augmented reality, but remain rooted in the physical environment.

Cost must also be a consideration. In its current state, entering the metaverse requires expensive consumer technology (Meta’s prized oculus headset retails at around £300) which is largely unaffordable for many.

According to Bluebite, shoppers that buy both online and in-store have a 30% higher lifetime value than those only using one channel. This means that implementing AR and VR into physical retail spaces is likely to push conversions and customer satisfaction rates in a way that current retail channels can not.

Finally, many are of the belief that the metaverse is a gimmick proposed by Zuckerberg to suppress some of the bad publicity Facebook has received over recent years. While retailers and brands might understandably be interested in the concept’s freshness, its longevity and value must still be questioned.

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