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The new reality of retail

WORD OF THE WEEK: META

Adjective: “self-referential” or knowingly distinct from the conventional and concrete world.

Prefix: “to change, transform and transcend reality”

It’s the word that’s been on everyone’s lips since Mark Zuckerberg made his announcement that the ‘Facebook’ we know and (used to) love would be rebranding itself as Meta, in an attempt to own the Metaverse. A Metawhat?

Our next reality – a shared online 3D virtual space, which will be the future version of the internet. A utopia where people gather to socialize, play, and work, and where anything you dream can be made possible… at least that’s Zuckerberg sales pitch. Picture this. It’s Friday night, five years from now. Instead of meeting at your local, you’re plugging in to meet with friends and play a merry game of scrabble on top of Europe’s tallest mountain. The reality is far less exciting: you cooped up in an overpriced London share flat, headset on, looking for an escape.

This Matrix-esque future seems so far from our current reality… except that it isn’t. You only need to hop onto your morning ZOOM meeting or walk the high street to see how brands are painting a Minority Report-like reality for us already.

Is this real life? Is this just fantasy?

The existential question begs to be asked… just because you can only experience it digitally, does that make the experience any less real for the viewer?

If we rewind to a bit earlier this year, one of the most stir-worthy examples of this was the much-talked-about Zara store window. The cascade of colourful balls whipping around from floor to ceiling captured the imagination of the world and many believed it to be a real LED window similar to the 3D billboards that have been literally making waves. But, the show-stopping playground was only a simulation that existed on the internet. A bit of 3D social media art, commissioned by Zara. The stunt was hailed as a massive strategic success, and the proof is in the record 1.2m likes for the brand… but we can’t help but feel slightly disappointed.

Zara window, Shane Fu

The same disappointment we felt at this year’s closing event of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Millions of spectators were wowed at home by the animated CGI Olympic Ring display of beautiful, luminous colours swirling together to represent the many flags of the world, sparkling above the stadium. Pure special effects that, let’s face it, were not so special for those who actually made the whole event possible – the organisers and, above all, the athletes themselves.

A covid catalyst

To figure out where retail is headed, it’s important to look at how we got here. The pandemic has been the catalyst to this ever-changing world, forcing us to experience life from behind our screens. When the world of physical retail was actively searching for new ways to be relevant, it has been an accelerator, opening up a debate on the purpose of a physical space in a world that’s moving increasingly towards online-only offers and experiences. So, what is that purpose exactly? 

To experience physical products (ideally in a digital way)

Apple, for example, has always been a leader when it comes to future-proofing their stores, positioning themselves as experiential destinations that are, at times, more akin to museums. A powerful example of this is when they turned their space into a physical-meets-digital interactive art exhibition. Making AR accessible for everyone through the lens of their iPhone. Using the Apple Store app, customers could dive through an [AR]T Viewer portal into another dimension and explore artworks, created by pioneering artist Nick Cave, in a gamified scavenger hunt.

Apple [AR]T

To sell digital experiences in a more traditional, physical way

Ready for more complexity? So, you can sell physical products digitally, but can you sell digital products physically? Earlier this year, Westfield trialled a partnership with TikTok where the social giant created a 4,000 square ft ‘For You’ house taking over two floors in the shopping center. The venture was part of the mall owner’s post-lockdown push to get people to come back in stores as well as bring together a community of younger shoppers.

The real-life interactive space was positioned as a hub of creativity, enabling fans to interact with platform influencers (with a combined following of over 100 million), get video tips, as well as create their own videos in a staged setting. With social media platforms enabling us to live out parallel digital lives, it’s interesting to see how they might start to slowly filter into our ‘real’/physical lives.

Next-level personalisation

Hold onto your coffee cups because this may start to get a little Black Mirror… I’m sure we’ve all seen (and been a bit shook) by the Tom Cruise ‘DeepFake’ that was circulating a while ago. Ever since, the term has conjured up all sorts of unsettling feelings, but fashion retailers are looking at how they might use the technology to create ‘the new frontier of fashion’. It’s already been seen on the catwalk at London Fashion Week where it was used to turn everyday members of the public into fashion models. Now retailers are looking at how they might deliver a more personalised in-store experience digitally.

Deep Fake Virtual Try-on - FIA, Superpersonal and HANGER

While stores and changing rooms remain open for the most part, there is still a sense of hesitation and apprehension. DeepFake will enable retailers to build tools that will offer customers peace of mind, enabling them to swap their face with digital models and select their closest body match, all from the comfort of their own home. And that’s just the start.

Crossing the line

The line between digital and physical are becoming increasingly blurred, but the retailer’s opportunity has never been clearer. By looking to the likes of AI and machine learning, or to go as far as adopting these formats into future business strategy, retailers will improve, innovate and modernise their overall brand experiences. Making them better – or as Zuckerberg puts it…META.

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