Getting real in the metaverse

Psst … over here … I’ve got a chair in the metaverse with your name on it

I’ve been reading and hearing a lot about the metaverse and how you’re not going to want to miss this train to untold riches. Consumers are going to flock to your metaverse stores to fill their metaverse homes with your metaverse tables and chairs. And they’ll pay good money for them, too! Maybe even some of that digital currency that’s so hot these days. Delivery is going to be a breeze. And those supply chain issues that took two years to ease? Forget about it. We can get it to your warehouse or end consumer in just under 15 nanoseconds.

Sounds like a win-win-win. So it brings me no pleasure to offer this advice, especially since no one is asking for it: Just don’t do it.

I hate to play the part of the industry crank, but I think some of us are forgetting something vital: Technology is a tool. It can get us where we want to go faster and more efficiently than ever before if it’s frictionless, affordable and used correctly. It’s a means to an end, not the actual destination. Arguably, Facebook/Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and others leading the metaverse charge are proving me wrong as I write this. Technology apparently can be used to build a whole new universe. But be careful where you step lest you fall into a virtual black hole.

I just bought a house in the metaverse and all I’ve got to show for it is this NFT!

Spoiler alert: The metaverse is not a real place. Take off the annoying goggles and it disappears. The metaverse “real” estate market has cratered this year, according to reports. There’s not much of a first-mover advantage to opening shop in the metaverse no matter how many fake sofas you manage to sell, because there is no single, widely-adopted metaverse app or format, and — more importantly — because that metaverse shopper who is buying virtual furniture eventually is going to feel, well — taken. 

This all reminds me of a “The Simpsons” episode from many years ago, which was a spoof on “The Music Man” musical. The town of Springfield holds a town meeting to discuss how they should spend a sudden multi-million dollar budget surplus, when suddenly a slick con man shows up to sell the small town a monorail. Springfield’s roads are a series of potholes. Its schools desperately need money. While the residents have crowded into the town hall, burglars are breaking into their homes. But the monorail is the future and it comes with a catchy song and dance (Man, I miss Phil Hartman) so everyone is in!

I’m not suggesting Mark Zuckerberg — or anyone else selling us the metaverse — is a con man, but maybe we can first try a little harder to satisfy customers in this world, before we move on to disappointing them in another.

On the other hand, if you see me as “that guy,” who just refuses to embrace change, and you still feel called to play in the metaverse, I still think there is one thing you could do to score some loyalty points with your customers. You could remind them where they are.

You: Welcome wonderfully naive guest! How can I virtually delight you today?

Customer: I really love that sofa over there, where I’m pointing my finger. And the price is right, too! How much for delivery?

You: Today’s your lucky day! Delivery is free.

Customer: Great! Do you think I should get the fabric protection? I’ve got two messy kids, a cat and a guinea pig.

You: Fabric protection is, unnec … er… It’s included, too!

Customer: Fantastic! I’ll take it.

You: Very good! It’s our great pleasure to take your money. But before we do, can I get you to sign on this virtual dotted line under the part that says you understand this is NOT a real sofa?

Customer: Wait, what?

You: Right there — where it says this product exists only in the metaverse. And even if you have purchased a pretend home in the metaverse to go along with it, this is strictly a pretend sofa that you cannot see anywhere else with anything other than those cool goggles you’re wearing.

Customer: Hmmm. I might need to think this over.

You: Don’t get me wrong. The sofa you love is very special. It’s an exclusive. It’s just that it’s not really there. Also, it was designed by three chimps banging on a keyboard with a little help from our lead product developer, AI, so it probably wouldn’t hold up outside of the metaverse anyway. On the plus side, your cat can’t visit the metaverse, so there’s that.

Customer: Bummer.

You: But if you’d like, I’d be happy to show you around our other virtual showroom or even our real showroom so you can pick out something you can actually sit down on and really enjoy — in real life.

Customer: Sure! Let’s go!

The metaverse is a game — for most. Clearly, it’s not a game for doctors and surgeons who can collaborate in the metaverse on real-world diagnoses and surgeries. It’s not a game for anybody looking to bridge geographic distances to collaborate on anything — maybe even furniture projects. But it is a game for most of the rest of us, and it might be best to stay out of way of these other serious people so the important work can be accomplished. Selling non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and imaginary sofas is not important work, at least not in my book. It’s a distraction from both the real work and the real fun.

There will always be a set of folks who want to play in the metaverse while it’s being built out, while it collapses, while it goes on forever — whatever. And if the price to play isn’t ridiculous, they’ll have fun doing that. Heck, they might even be open to paying ungodly amounts of money for the pleasure, so I take back the part about the pricing. 

But let’s remember what consumers really want from this industry. It’s not fun and games. They want comfort, style, function. They want helpful direction, whether that’s online or in-store. Also, let’s try to remember the last time people just couldn’t get enough of a video game about furniture.

One of the earliest and closest precursors to the metaverse that I can think of (which says more about my understanding of this than I intend) is an online game my daughter used to play called Webkinz. It was many years ago, so the details are fuzzy. But I remember buying her a tiny plush pet toy at a store (something real, so this analogy already is breaking down), and then she’d go online, punch in her pet’s code and interact with the virtual animated version of the toy. She’d feed it, bathe it. Probably even talk to it in some computer language that could translate English to Pet and vice versa. If she didn’t regularly take care of her online pet, it would get sick.

My daughter’s pet got very sick. Eventually, I imagine, it died, if that can happen in the Webkinz metaverse.

Today, my daughter is all grown up. She no longer plays with digital pets or even stuffed animals. Today, she has her own apartment. She has a real sofa, she can plop down on after a long day at work. She even has a real cat to love. She’s in her 20s and, believe it or not, she likes to shop for clothes and furniture in real stores — as well as online. She likes to meet up with friends in real restaurants and bars.

At some point — no telling exactly when — the novelty of a digital pet metaverse just wore off. 

She took off the goggles and saw what she really wanted.

Featured art is AI-generated from text via WOMBO Dream

Clint Engel

Engel has covered furniture retail news — with an emphasis on Top 100 companies — for more than 28 years. He spent nearly all of that time as retail editor and then senior retail editor at Furniture Today before founding Home News Now with Publisher Rick Harrison and has become a go-to resource for information and insight on the retail trends and events that shape this business.

View all posts by Clint Engel →

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