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If you search the Merriam Webster dictionary for a definition of metaverse you won't find one.

But if you search the site's 'Words We're Watching/Words at Play' you discover a full-on description: "In its current meaning, metaverse generally refers to the concept of a highly immersive virtual world where people gather to socialize, play, and work. Awareness of this term surged on October 29, 2021, when Facebook rebranded itself "Meta" and released a video in which CEO Mark Zuckerberg says, "I believe the metaverse is the next chapter for the internet."

But that definition lacks one very important, and compelling, component of a highly immersive virtual world — the commerce/retail component. So it's not surprising that defining metaverse in the retail realm is still quite fuzzy, and likely more than a bit perplexing, to retailers.

Research firm Gartner took a big stab at creating a metaverse definition in a January 2022 article written by Ashutosh Gupta. Gupta describes the adoption of metaverse technologies as in an "early stage," and defines metaverse as a "collective virtual open space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical and digital reality. It is physically persistent and provides enhanced immersive experiences."

A fellow Gartner leader dug a bit deeper: "Metaverse will allow people to replicate or enhance their physical activities. This could happen by transporting or extending physical activities to a virtual world or by transforming the physical one," Marty Resnick, VP analyst, stated in the article. "Although the goal of a metaverse is to combine many of these activities, there are currently many individual metaverses with limited functionality,"

Neither Gartner definitions specifically mention retail and maybe that's because since its arrival, via Zuckerberg last October, the metaverse is creating more questions than answers.

Yet is bodes an immense potential to spur the shift from a hybrid in-store and digital marketing plan to a fully virtual experience, according to Thomas Kasemir, chief product officer at Productsup. The Productsup P2C platform enables companies to exert control over every aspect of global product information value chains by aggregating, optimizing, contextualizing, and distributing product content across more than 2,500 marketing and retail channels. The platform processes over two trillion products a month for over 900 global companies, including IKEA, Sephora, and ALDI.

But what will that potential involve and how can retailers prepare for that virtual retail experience?

Retail Customer Experience reached out to Kasemir in an email interview to gain greater insight on what metaverse is and will be for today's retailer.

Kasemir oversees Productsup's product vision and strategy, and leads the global engineering and product management teams. He has spent more than 20 years in the technology industry, holding senior product roles at various software companies like IBM, Heiler Software and Informatica.

Q. So the newest buzzword is metaverse within the retail industry. How do you define it and the role it will play in retail going forward?

A. While there are still many unknown elements to this futuristic ecosystem, we know companies are eager to meet their customers in a new dimension that offers endless possibilities for innovation. As many organizations have begun dipping their toes into the space, it's clear the metaverse will offer three elements to today's consumers that retailers should be prepared for:

Hyper-speed: The metaverse will run on ultrafast internet, which means consumers will become accustomed to experiencing the virtual world in real-time. With that, consistent and up-to-date product information will be the standard in the metaverse.

Limitless space: Space in the metaverse will have no boundaries, meaning creators and developers will have fewer restrictions to build products and experiences. This means consumers will expect next-gen innovations that go beyond what they could attain from the physical and digital world.

Vast channel ecosystem: Akin to the rise of ecommerce, the proliferation of marketing and selling channels will explode in the metaverse. Commerce anarchy, or inconsistent, inaccurate and incomplete product information across channels, will run rampant in this new world if companies can't control their product information value chains (PIVCs).

Q. What are you hearing from retailers about the metaverse? Is it on their agenda or is it something they're ignoring?

A. Retailers know that the metaverse is coming, but they are not sure what commerce will look like in the virtual world yet. While most of the initial iterations have been experimental, there's no clear path or standard set so far.

Right now, retailers can take a pioneer versus laggard approach to entering the metaverse space. Some companies are sitting back and watching because they don't know where to start or are still just trying to manage their current ecommerce operations. The ones that are pushing ahead and trying out NFT collections, using generative art technology, or virtual experiences will be better suited to succeed once the metaverse arrives.

Q. Where do you see the metaverse making its strongest presence in retail — will it be AR charged changing rooms or a better virtual assistant?

A. For me, any part of the metaverse that is focused on experiential retail will be the most successful. I think what gets lost in the metaverse conversation is the use of augmented reality. Consumers think they'll be purchasing all their products behind a virtual reality headset, but I think the appeal of the metaverse is taking online and offline experiences and transforming them into a whole new dimension.

Currently, there are things that people go in-store for because they can't get certain experiences online, such as trying on clothes. Conversely, some people prefer to shop online because it is more convenient and has a broader selection. The metaverse will provide the best of both worlds.

Q. Regarding NFTs, another big buzzy trend overall, where does that fit in retail, what value does it pose for retailers and what is the value for consumers?

A. The metaverse and NFTs have taken a simultaneous rise in popularity. Barely anyone was talking about them six months ago and now major retailers, sports organizations and apparel companies are all jumping on the NFT bandwagon.

While the concept of the metaverse is still unclear and hard to grasp for most consumers, NFTs provide a use case that is easier for the average person to understand. For example, Twitter users are starting to notice NFTs in influencers' profile pictures. NFTs provide a unique opportunity to familiarize consumers with the value of digital assets and educate them on how purchases can be leveraged in a metaverse future.

However, as retailers implement NFTs into their product line, they need to remember that most consumers are accustomed to hearing about outlandish examples of NFTs being sold for millions of dollars. Companies should focus on creating opportunities for consumers to see how owning an NFT won't break the bank and present a new era of fashion, art, gaming, etc.