As I enter the Alo Yoga store, the sounds of a burbling waterfall, chirping birds and my soft footsteps awaken my senses. I pass by faceless white mannequins and shelves filled with pink, yellow and seafoam green yoga mats. T-shirts, leggings and socks line the walls.
For a moment, I forget where I really am. Then I realize I can't touch anything. I'm not in a physical store. I'm sitting at a computer using the gaming platform Roblox, immersed in an experience called Alo Sanctuary.
In real life, Alo's black-and-white G.O.A.T jacket costs $268. In Alo Sanctuary, Roblox users can earn the virtual jacket after completing five days of meditation. Shopping never felt more serene. Or cheap.
Alo Sanctuary is just one example of how big brands are diving deeper into the metaverse, virtual spaces where people can work, play and socialize. The metaverse is much-hyped -- Facebook has hinged its future to it, rebranding as Meta -- but still largely unformed. It could fizzle out like so many concepts before it. Still, if these virtual worlds catch on, the metaverse could transform the way businesses attract new customers and how people shop. Unlike conventional online shopping or buying items in a physical store, these immersive virtual spaces push the boundaries of what's possible in real life.
"The concept of a virtual store that's just a replica of a real-world store is not terribly exciting because there's no need to be bound by four walls or a specific location in the digital world," said Sky Canaves, a senior analyst at Insider Intelligence. Shopping, she said, could be "far more dispersed" and "experiential" in the metaverse.
Gucci, Nike, Vans and Ralph Lauren have already created their own Roblox experiences, some charging to buy digital clothing and accessories. Roblox users pay for digital goods with a virtual currency called Robux that they can purchase with dollars or earn by developing games for the platform.
Roblox isn't alone in virtual commerce. The metaverse could encompass a variety of virtual experiences, accessible through games, virtual reality and augmented reality, which overlays the user's view of the physical world with computer images.
Apple is rumored to be working on an AR/VR headset, a product Canaves said could be a "game changer" for commerce in the metaverse. AR is already transforming the way we shop, by allowing people to virtually try items such as lipstick, glasses and furniture before they purchase them in real life.
Rec Room, a gaming platform available on phones, video game consoles and VR headsets, sports a virtual outdoor shopping center called Ink Inc. where users can try on and buy costumes, furniture, plushies and other digital goods to dress up their avatars or decorate their dorm rooms.
Shopping isn't limited to virtual goods. Last year, Dyson launched an app that showcased the technology behind products such as hair dryers, curling irons and straighteners, all items that people can purchase in real life. Luxury fashion house Balenciaga teamed up with Fortnite to sell not only virtual skins (outfits players wear in the video game) but also limited edition (and not cheap) Fortnite clothing.
At SXSW last week, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he envisions people in the virtual world will want to express themselves with clothing like they do in the physical world. They'll also want to be able to bring their digital purchases, like a virtual jacket or sweater, across different experiences. "It's just a lot less useful if everything that you buy is constrained to one app or one game," he said.
When Sawhorse Productions teamed up with Alo Yoga in December to design a virtual sanctuary in Roblox, the Los Angeles-based content studio wanted to create an experience that did more than showcase yoga clothes. The studio took its inspiration from the client's name. Alo stands for air, land and ocean, elements that are part of the Alo Sanctuary.
"One of the goals was to bring mindfulness to the metaverse and kind of reach an audience who's younger than their core audience," said Nic Hill, Sawhorse's co-founder and head of postproduction and interactive. About 48% of Roblox's users are under 13 years old. In the last three months of 2021, about 50 million people visited the platform daily.
The release of the virtual experience in February coincided with New York Fashion Week, when Alo offered daily meditation at its real-life Wellness Sanctuary at Spring Studios in New York City. Outside of bringing more awareness to the brand, Alo Sanctuary also served as a charity event. Alo said it would donate money to mental health initiatives every time a Roblox user completed a "mindfulness movement quest."
Roblox users get rewarded with virtual Alo products by practicing meditation. The yoga mats are free, enticing people to spend more time in the space to earn more virtual items. Users can also wear Alo Yoga clothing in other spaces on Roblox, allowing the brand to market itself across the platform. At least 353,663 Roblox users have worn the virtual G.O.A.T jacket, Alo said. Alo Sanctuary has racked up more than 20 million visits.
The studio wanted to make the virtual sanctuary feel like a place you can't find in the physical world but it also took its cues from real-world Alo Yoga stores. In this virtual world, I look like a yellow Lego character with pink lipstick, headphones and a jean jacket. Even though the island and my avatar look like cartoons, the sound gives the space an immersive feel. When my avatar steps from sand to grass, I notice a subtle change in the sound of my footsteps.
I earned my first virtual item after completing an introductory meditation session. As my avatar unrolls a yoga mat and sits cross-legged in the lotus pose, I take a deep breath and count to six. "You have unlocked the Alo Crew Neck," a notice in Roblox reads after a minute of meditation. "This item will be available in your Roblox inventory within a few hours."
This isn't Alo's first foray into the virtual world. In 2020, the company teamed up with skincare brand Tatcha and released virtual lavender clothing on the Nintendo video game Animal Crossing.
The emergence of new virtual worlds also gives people the chance to sell their own products.
Rook Vanguard, a pseudonymous game developer, has created virtual accessories in Roblox for Gucci and other major brands, as well as his own designs. (Vanguard declined to provide his legal name, citing harassment concerns.) One of his specialties is digital accessories such as wings, top hats and halos that change color. His best-selling item is a black-and-white mask that changes from a happy to sad face. The price tag is 85 Robux or roughly $1 (Roblox sells 400 Robux for $4.99 but also has different packages).
"Most people go for the lowest price possible, which is something I do personally for my collection, depending on the item," Vanguard said. "We just want as many people to be able to wear it."
Celebrities are already making big bucks from selling virtual clothing. Swedish pop star Zara Larsson, who hosted a virtual dance party in Roblox in May, told the BBC last year that she made $1 million from selling virtual items such as hats and sunglasses.
Creating and selling virtual items for avatars is one way Roblox users can make money. About 30% of the sale goes to the creator of the item, 40% goes to the seller of the item and 30% goes to Roblox, according to a blog post about the topic. Roblox will convert Robux into US dollars if accounts have a minimum of 50,000 Robux. (Roblox uses an exchange rate of approximately 35/10,000ths of a dollar per Robux earned, so 50,000 Robux would equate to about $175.) Developers must submit a tax form and Roblox reports cash earnings of more than $600 to the Internal Revenue Service.
As with physical items, a market for secondhand virtual goods exists on Roblox. And just like in the real world, Roblox users snap up items they expect could rise in value, with the intention of making a profit off of them. The only caveat is that Robux acquired from trading or selling virtual items that you didn't create can't be converted into dollars.
Bay Area resident George Tolsma III, also known as GeorgeTheDev, owns thousands of Roblox items, including more than 700 racing helmets, Gucci bags and a 15-year-old American flag hat that at one point he tried to sell for 7 million Robux. Tolsma said he's used his Robux to pay other developers to help improve games he's developed on the platform.
Digital items, he says, can have sentimental value like physical items do, but owning them feels different because you can't physically touch them.
"It's almost like having a verified badge on your Twitter," said Tolsma.
The idea of selling virtual goods for dressing up avatars isn't new. Virtual and augmented reality have been around for years. So has the concept of buying physical goods through VR.
Second Life, a game released in 2003, lets people buy virtual goods for their avatars, just like Roblox does. In 2016, Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba launched an app called Buy Plus that allows people to purchase physical goods displayed in a digital mall using its payment app and get the items shipped to their home.
When Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook's name change, he called the metaverse the successor to the mobile internet. Some of the physical items we own today, he said, will be "holograms designed by creators around the world."
A lot of the challenges that exist in the real world with commerce, such as counterfeit goods, are already impacting the creation of digital goods and assets. In Roblox, I stumbled into a fake virtual Gucci Garden. I knew it was fake because the event had ended on May 31, 2021. Luxury brand Hermes sued American artist Mason Rothschild in January for allegedly ripping off its trademark after Rothschild created fur-covered Birkin bags and sold them as digital assets known as nonfungible tokens, or NFTs. Hermes didn't respond to a request for comment.
Brands will have to convince consumers that it's worthwhile to shop in the metaverse. About 41% of US adults aren't interested and haven't used AR or VR for shopping, according to a December poll for eMarketer, which was renamed Insider Intelligence.
"Consumer interest right now is still a little more limited," Canaves said.