Before the internet, the mall was the spot for watching movies, hanging out, listening to music, finding love — and an embodiment of all-American consumerism. "The shopping center was Amazon, it was Facebook, it was Tinder, it was Spotify, it was Netflix," said retail futurist Doug Stephens. "It was the gathering point in the community."
It's been tough to transfer that '80s mall glimmer to the internet. Mainstream online shopping is convenient and practical, but you can't have a meet-cute or stumble into an arcade while shopping on Amazon. Protocol spoke to experts who agree that online retail is headed toward a more immersive future. In other words, a metaverse future: that word we all love that means everything and possibly nothing at all. It's an "embodied internet", an ever-present space where we can meet as personalized avatars. The metaverse doesn't exist yet, but precursors like virtual reality and multiplayer video games do.
Retail is everywhere online, so it makes sense that it's been at the forefront of growing conversations about the metaverse. Everyone's building their own digital interactive space — like a crypto group trying to buy the Constitution in a virtual Sotheby's auction room in 3D VR space Decentraland last Thursday. Combined with the hype around digital goods and cryptocurrency, companies and futurists are starting to imagine what shopping in the metaverse might look like.
Shopping is about the experience
As malls decline ever more rapidly, it's easy to see them as nostalgic, once-constant fixtures. But the truth is that malls were disruptors in their own right. Starting in the 1960s, they drove business away from downtown retailing districts in hundreds of U.S. cities. Now many malls face a similar fate due to the rise of ecommerce, growing income inequality and dwindling department stores. And it's all made worse by the pandemic.
Not all malls are dying. A key factor is whether they're located in affluent communities. But another common trait among successful malls is their focus on experiential tenants like climbing walls, movie theaters or axe-throwing centers. "[These malls] are the biggest, shiniest pennies in the marketplaces they serve," said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School. Shopping is not just about buying stuff; it never has been. It's about the experience and the community that grows around it.
Wish was created with this idea in mind. Its tagline is "shopping made fun." The shopping app is designed for people who want to discover items rather than shop with specific items in mind, CPO Tarun Jain said. Wish is built on a never-ending feed of random, affordable products for users to peruse. "We really focus on the fun and entertainment piece, which I believe is where a lot of commerce is heading," Jain said.
The stumble-in or window-shopping aspect of malls is what Wish is all about. "A lot of people go to stores just to browse," Jain said. "That's an underlying human emotion. People enjoy the concept of that." Wish launched back in 2011, when the idea of the feed was novel. Now everything's a feed, so Jain said the company is focused on taking the customer experience to the next level. Its user research has shown that consumers want to communicate with the platform, Jain said, the same way they'd communicate with a retail worker in a physical store. Wish also wants to introduce product videos.
Sometimes people just want pure entertainment while shopping, Wish has found. The app includes a "Blitz Buy" game where consumers can spin a wheel to view a "select number of discounted items." "We tried an experiment where we took it out and our numbers showed that our users love it so much and we should not mess with it," Jain said.
A metaverse shopping center would fit in naturally with gaming and entertainment industries. Video game companies like Epic Games and Roblox have been early leaders in metaverse-like realities. Video games and retail are already linked in that players can often buy weapons, apparel or currency within a game. Luxury brand Balenciaga brought digital garments to Fortnite. The worlds are closely intertwined.
When you're not bound by the laws of physics, the design options are endless. "We could transport the consumer into any unique or remarkable environment that they want," Stephens said. "A consumer might want to shop for a handbag on Mars. The sky's the limit in terms of what we can do." Why design an exact replica of a traditional mall when you can instead shop in outer space?
These potential fantastical locations are what's so exciting about the metaverse. Companies are already thinking about how to turn shopping into a 3D experience. One of them is Obsess, which builds virtual platforms for major retailers. Part of its website is dedicated to the metaverse and the many different forms it can take. Brands can work with Obsess to design their own interactive world on their own websites, or on platforms like Roblox or Oculus headsets.
Stephens noted that the tech isn't quite there yet. "To walk around with an Oculus headset on, it's ridiculous," he said. "But we have to appreciate that every year or two, technologies we use are becoming infinitely more powerful, smaller and more wearable." Think about tech like an Apple Watch. Even with our phones, we're constantly plugged in and interacting with the internet. As Stephens said, the internet contains an "ambient level of retail commerce." Our experiences online have become more tangible, and retail is baked into those experiences: on our Instagram feeds or our favorite YouTube videos. "When you put these things together, the notion of a parallel reality, almost a digital twin of the physical world that we can move into ... it makes perfect sense," Stephens said.
The future of digital retail
Will people buy digital sneakers to wear on their digital date in a digital world? That's the age-old question, and it's part of the debate around NFTs and digital goods in general. The answer is a resounding yes from digital fashion house The Fabricant.
The Fabricant believes fashion is inherently an emotional experience, and doesn't necessarily require physicality. Right now people can project The Fabricant's clothing on their bodies through photos or videos. But ultimately, this clothing is meant to be worn in the metaverse. Clearly, The Fabricant faces a lot of skepticism. What's the point of clothing that you can't physically wear? It's betting, though, on the eventual existence of the metaverse and a growing adoption of NFTs. "The world has come around to our point of view," Michaela Larosse, head of content and strategy, said. "When we launched in 2018, we were very much an outlier."
The Fabricant believes fashion is inherently an emotional experience, and doesn't necessarily require physicality.Image: The Fabricant
The company is big on expanding beyond physical boundaries and the "democratization of fashion creation." But their digital garments are not very accessible right now. They're expensive and rare. Larosse said The Fabricant hopes to draw more people in with The Fabricant Studio, where anybody can mint their own digital fashion NFT. She thinks digital retail will be a much more collaborative process.
If more people start believing that exclusive digital goods have inherent value, maybe they would buy digital-only clothes to wear on their virtual shopping trips. But there's also room for brands that can pair physical goods with digital ones, like the sculpture created by NFT artist Beeple that sold for almost $29 million this month.
Larosse advised retailers to delve into the crypto space, as these users are likely to be early adopters of metaverse shopping centers. She also noted that the unending possibilities in a virtual world might make it more difficult for current retailers to adapt. "There's no gravity: All things are possible and you can go anywhere," Larosse said. "That's a challenge to create a world of virtual spaces that correlate with their brand values and that resonate with users."
Where does this leave brick-and-mortar malls? Cohen, the director of retail studies at Columbia, said "consumers, depending on the category and where they live, still will seek to touch, feel, try, rather than just simply buy things sight-unseen." Physical retailing still represents the majority of commerce.
Stephens said malls are still figuring themselves out. They may no longer be the sole community watering hole, but he believes their main purpose will always be gathering consumers into a community. They might just have to carve a place for themselves in the metaverse.
Correction: This story was updated on Nov 29 to reflect that Wish launched in 2011.