The Future of Commerce: Blending Physical & Digital Experiences

Franco Varriano
July 20, 2021
 min read
"The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed." - William Gibson

This quote is pretty famous in specific tech and entrepreneurship circles, but is likely not well known by those outside that world.

However, this quote and the ideas it represents were felt by many more at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As physical, real-world activities became limited or non-existent, more of us shifted to digital means of engagement.

This period saw a notable increase in the growth of online communities and platforms. Take these stats from the top streaming services:

  • Netflix added 8 million new subscribers in Q4 of 2020
  • Disney+ launched in late 2019 and grew to 73 million subscribers by November 2020
  • Spotify gained 6 million new (paid) subscribers in Q1 2020 

Want more? The New York Times put together a detailed breakdown of how our relationship with digital media and the internet was impacted by the pandemic.

You could argue this shift was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence and that we'll soon return to "normal," physical-world interactions—but there were indicators of this digital trend even before COVID-19 hit.

Regardless of why it’s happening, what’s clear is that we're spending more time online.

There are and will continue to be many short-term opportunities as we experiment and create this new online world. Over the long-term, it won't be an either or situation—rather, experiences and activities will occur in both physical and digital spaces.  

And in the coming decade, identity and the creative capacity for making new things will be among the core drivers of change.

Blending experiences, connecting identities

In a recent post, we explored the concept of identity.

As noted, identity was primarily established for (and by) the physical world. Think: logos and brands for quality; status signaling.

While many of us have developed digital identities in the last 10-15 years thanks to social media, these online personas have always been an extension of our physical identity or a chance to experiment with that physical identity in new spaces.

As we spend more time online and the differentiation between physical and digital worlds blur, our identities will become blended.

Gen Z are early adopters of this shift.

They already manage and cultivate various profiles (AKA identities) to match their interest-groups.

A recent collaborative report between Snapchat and Wunderman Thompson noted:

“They have also grown up mobile-first and expect custom experiences tailored for their phones. This has informed so much of the way we tell stories ourselves on our platform—full screen vertical, quickly paced, highly visual, and personal.”

What Gen Zers all have in common is an intuitive relationship with social platforms and digital tools that are continuously evolving. Gen Zers are overwhelmingly embracing new digital tools and features from platforms like Snapchat, but many also recognize the need to take a break from the internet’s immersive influence and wield the creative power of the analogue and IRL.”

This fast-paced evolution isn't happening only in the online world of social media or gaming universes like Fortnite or Rec Room.

We've always had the capacity to evolve and change our identity, but now more than ever, the communities and cultures surrounding us influence that evolution and the rate of change. This can have both positive and negative effects.

Connected commerce

There is a powerful relationship between community and commerce. Add tribe dynamics, scarcity, and status and you begin to see the genius (and complexity) of modern brands like Supreme and Glossier, or niche communities like 100 Thieves.

We're seeing a boom of exploration along this spectrum of connected commerce—brands that exist in both the physical and digital worlds. This includes brands like Netflix opening an online merch store that captures binge watching culture, to luxury fashion brands like Gucci creating avatar fashion, or digital collectibles like RTFKT creating physical versions of digital products:


It's no longer about the physical world versus the digital world, it's about how we can artfully combine the two.

"While customers’ self-expression used to be only physical, it is now merging with the virtual at an accelerated pace. The most straightforward example of a product NFT is when the asset is the digital twin of a real-life product and has its own value."

- Mirjana Perkovic, CEO of LookStyler, a global luxury lifestyle platform

Likewise, the identities of the future are portable, functional, and carry status across different spaces. Creating superpower apps and empowering more communities to use them (from creators to entrepreneurs and beyond) will undoubtedly spark a new period in human history.

Call it the evolution of the internet, call it the next industrial revolution—whatever the name, we can be sure that the creative and collaborative exchange of ideas, and the blending of (personalized) experiences between physical and digital worlds represent a massive opportunity for those who are willing to jump on board.

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