A woman wearing a VR headset sits at a desk and extends one hand in front of her, reaching to touch something that only she can see. Another woman sits beside her and someone else stands behind her; the latter person's head is cut off by the edge of the picture. The room around them appears to be an office or a staff room at a school; a large bulletin board can be seen out of focus in the background.
Definitions and understanding of the metaverse are still evolving, but there are several emerging ways that your small business can use and explore this technological landscape. — Getty Images/whyframestudio

Big brands like Forever 21, Coca-Cola, and Chipotle have started investing in the metaverse, leaving smaller merchants wondering: what is the metaverse, and why should they care?

The metaverse is hard to define, which is one of the challenges of creating a strategy around marketing and using this emerging technology. The most common, straightforward definition of the metaverse is that it’s a combination of multiple emerging technologies seeking to reach the next level of interaction in the virtual and physical worlds.

As the metaverse continues to develop, it’s worth keeping tabs on this trend to prepare for its impact on retail, customer service, marketing, and more. Here’s what small business owners need to know about the metaverse in 2022, as well as some creative ways to use the metaverse as it evolves.

[Read more: 5 Consumer Trends Businesses Should Know in 2022]

Background: What is the metaverse?

Tech leaders and other visionaries envision an “embodied internet,” a sci-fi concept in which physical, augmented, and virtual reality come together in a shared online space: the metaverse. We’re a long way off from this futuristic vision, but it appears to be what companies like Meta are working towards.

Today’s iteration of the metaverse is actually no one singular “thing.” The metaverse is best understood as many separate virtual spaces and experiences that combine technologies like virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), video-conferencing, games like Roblox, cryptocurrency, and familiar tools like email, social media, and live-streaming.

In practice, brands are trying out metaverse technology to create branded experiences, provide better employee training, and entertain consumers.

How are big brands using the metaverse?

For companies with bigger budgets, there are plenty of innovative ways to use VR, AR, and other metaverse technologies. Online retailers have started using AR in their e-commerce sites. For instance, AR apps from Amazon, Home Depot, and Ikea allow shoppers to visualize how a piece of furniture or decor will look in their home. Warby Parker has a tool that lets shoppers virtually “try on” frames before ordering them. And Nike is using AR to help shoppers measure their fit and find the right size shoe.

Today’s iteration of the metaverse is actually no one singular “thing.”

Elsewhere, video games are introducing immersive spaces into their narratives. The company Roblox creates online worlds where users can create, buy, sell, and interact with items and experiences. Likewise, Fortnite has evolved from a competitive video game to a platform for virtual events tied to real-world concerts, movies, and sports competitions.

Finally, virtual reality is playing a role in improving education and training. One study found that using VR in training helps employees upskill faster, learning four times faster than classroom learners and twice as fast as e-learners.

“Instead of simply teaching theory, teams get genuine people-practice with customized solutions that can be readily scaled for companies of any size—assuring the training remains in sync with company growth or shifts,” wrote Fast Company.

These use cases can provide road maps for small businesses seeking to get ahead of the metaverse trend.

How can small businesses use the metaverse?

Smaller merchants can tap into the metaverse trend without having to spend big. Consider exploring gaming platforms and other technologies and partnering with influencers and community partners in the sphere. Becoming familiar with these spaces and consumer behavior in the metaverse is a good starting point.

Likewise, small business owners can start experimenting with VR and AR technology. Shopify and other platforms are starting to introduce tools that you can use to offer virtual experiences on your e-commerce site. Shopify now supports 3D models on its product pages, which allow customers to browse products in AR. Shopify even has a support team to help you build these models.

[Read more: How to Monetize the Metaverse: Big Brands' Tech Partners Share Tips]

Stay on top of trends adjacent to the metaverse, too. Learn the basics about Web3, crypto tokens, NFTs, and other tech trends that could have an impact on consumer behavior. And consider adding VR to your next employee training to make the experience more engaging and effective.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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