When Topshop announced they were pulling out of their flagship Oxford street shop last year, the fatalistic chatter about the end of the high street gathered colossal momentum. The store was eventually snapped up by Ikea, for £378m, but another hole was left in its wake, with House of Fraser closing down too.
Despite this, almost three in five Brits believe the high street is still important, according to Savoo. They value their sense of community. But do they value it enough to forgo the convenience of online shopping?
In 2022 British retailers will make 52 per cent of sales online, according to research by Retail Economics. High street apparel stores will be left with a £14.5bn hole in sales by 2025 if “changes are not made”. And there is another titanic change coming its way: the metaverse.
As we transfer our identities onto the digital world, we will still need to buy “real world” clothes. How we do it, however, will change dramatically. “For the high street to stay as a staple in British culture, the shopping experience should remain at the forefront for retailers”, says Ed Fleming, Managing Director at Savoo.
In the metaverse, our avatars will access themed shops offering incredible digital experiences. You could buy a Patagonia jumper while hiking South American mountains; Moncler could base its shop on the French skiing slopes. High street shopping, in comparison, might look just a tad more boring. The shops on our streets will have to readapt, offering a service focused on face-to-face interaction.
Stefan Hauswiesner is the CEO and co-founder of Reactive Reality, a software that enables people to try clothes on a personalised avatar. He founded the company in 2014, when these ideas were pipe dreams. Now that the metaverse is on everyone’s lips, it’s paying back. “When you have a virtual dressing room you can try 300 pairs of jeans in a couple of minutes. You narrow down your options, so when you go to the store the shop assistant can bring you the remaining items”, he explains. For anyone that ever envied Cher Horowitz’ virtual wardrobe in Clueless, it’s now a reality.
This might seem extra-futuristic compared to the way we shop. But British retail brands are already moving in this space. “It’s not as big of a jump as people feel. Lots of the metaverse terminology seems a bit baffling, but once you get past that people will accept it”, says James Batham, partner at law firm Eversheds Sutherland. Big brands with more cash in hand have started the transition. Selfridges is beginning to sell NFTs in store – digital versions of Paco Rabanne’s dresses. When day-to-day providers like grocers will start too, what seems extravagant will be normalised.
The high street will likely become a blend of digital and real-life shopping. This is not necessarily a bad development. The retail industry is very adaptable, and this is good for customers’ choice. The metaverse will expand these boundaries, providing brands with an opportunity to lure a new generation of shoppers in. “My kids, who are nine and ten, don’t really know what brands represent. They learn about brands on social media and in the metaverse”, says Andrew Kiquel, co-founder and CEO of Tokens.com, a company investing in cryptocurrencies and blockchain digital assets.
It can also start to address the profound waste in the fashion industry; if you can try clothes on an avatar with your body measurements, what you order online will more likely fit you.
Obviously the change will send shockwaves across the system, and small businesses with less money to invest will feel the pain. But opposing the change out of principle makes no sense; if anything, it’s too late, for the engines are already moving.