Try Before You Buy

Nov 03, 2006

By Bernice Hurst, Managing Director, Fine Food Network

When (if) life isn’t enough, we can now reinvent ourselves with alter egos called avatars just as upwards of one million people have done on the three-dimensional, virtual world known as Second Life (SL). Controlled by real people from their computers, Second Life’s world offers virtually unlimited mass market appeal as boundaries between it and the real world blur. By creating and interacting with avatars, the limitations of real life can be overcome and simultaneously maximized.

Increasing numbers of real world retailers are setting up shop in Second Life to compete with the virtual stores used by SL’s residents to house and clothe themselves. Currency in SL, called Linden Dollars, is convertible to U.S. dollars, making it even easier to buy and sell real and virtual products. American Apparel, Reebok, Nike and others are making their presence and products available.

Having said this, some residents worry their entrepreneurial adventures may face increasing competition as real world products are sold against their in-world creations. Because SL currency and U.S. dollars can be changed at will, their concerns may be justified. The very fact that credit cards can be used to buy Linden dollars further emphasizes the blurred boundaries between worlds.

Jeff Barr, official web services evangelist at, has another word for it. His avatar’s objective is to find projects that bridge the virtual world and the real one, he told Reuters reporter, Adam Pasick.

There is some evidence, as Michael Wilson, chief executive of Makena Technologies told The New York Times, that audiences are really in control. Makena operates a different social networking site but Wilson has his eye on what is virtually going on all over the place.

A recent Sun Microsystems press conference, for example, took place simultaneously in virtual and real worlds. The latter was relatively tame but the former included such interruptions as audience members flying onto the stage. Similarly, virtual protesters have formed the Second Life Liberation Army dedicated to fighting retailers and the site’s owners “for voting rights for avatars,” according to The New York Times report.

Alex Yenni, account coordinator, LEWIS – Global Public Relations for the site’s creator Linden Labs, recently spoke to RetailWire about the growth of SL and the impact of real world retailers on its residents.

RetailWire: What potential does a 3-D virtual world have for online commerce that’s not being seen in regular e-commerce?

Alex Yenni: It’s precisely the nature of the 3-D experience that offers the benefit. Products come to life, they’re not flat, people can customize them and try them out
as they like.

RW: Can you give some examples of unique product promotion and merchandising that can be done in the virtual world, such as fashion?

AY: American Apparel is a good example. SL residents buy products for a token amount but, at the same time, they’re given a voucher to use when they buy those products
in the real world. Their avatar can try on the clothes, see how they look, walk around and then the real customer can place an order. With Amazon, you can actually fill your shopping
basket, use a credit card to pay in U.S. dollars and have the order delivered to your real world home.

RW: Any other products taking off?

AY: Cars are another great example. Toyota launched its Psion which has loads of customization in the real world. You can do even more with it in SL. You buy the car for
a bargain price, design it, test drive it and make up your mind before buying a real one. Interaction is the main advantage. Retailers are finding novel ways to interact and draw
people in. SL adds a higher degree of brand interaction and connectivity as well as an extra dimension to a static web environment. Customers can walk around a store and choose
what they want, try it on if they like or get in and drive away. You can’t do that with ordinary e-commerce.

RW: Going back to potential fashion sales – can avatars’ appearance, for example, size and shape, be easily and frequently changed? What I’m wondering is, if
the creator doesn’t necessarily want the avatar to reflect their physical appearance most of the time but does need to gain or lose weight in order to try on new clothes,
how easy is it to make adjustments?

AY: You’ve hit upon one of the key appeals of Second Life. Appearance is probably one of the most customizable features. Black, white, male, female, alien, animal,
tall, skinny, glowing, gorgeous, frightening… the sky is the limit as to how you appear, customizable to even the most minute curvature of your nose. The same applies
for clothes.

RW: Yes, but can you change appearance frequently or is it fixed once you create the avatar?

AY: As frequently as you want… that goes for clothes (hats, shoes, jewelry, everything!), cars, toys, dance moves, house, accessories. You can literally change whatever
you want, whenever you want in Second Life.

RW: More specifically, I was wondering about size and shape – can you get fatter or thinner at will? Taller, shorter? Change your skin tone? I’m really trying to get at
whether or not the person you start out with is the one you stay with or you can change your appearance along with your mind.

AY: You can change everything as often as you want… that goes for all the things you’ve just mentioned.

Discussion question: What opportunities do three dimensional, interactive, virtual worlds such as Second Life offer retailers and consumer brand marketers?

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5 Comments on "Try Before You Buy"

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Jeff Weitzman
Jeff Weitzman
15 years 6 months ago
Josh Jaffe (an interactive ad guru) just opened an agency simultaneously in the real world and Second Life. So now that virtual world even has its own ad agency to help virtual retailers and other businesses sell. The virtual world is hardly new. Back in the mid 90s, there were lots of virtual world projects, and some of you may remember VRML, a Web standard for creating such environments. These in turn arose from MUDs and MOOs and other text-based virtual worlds, and the board game Dungeons & Dragons before that. What’s different is the much greater level of internet use now, the growing ubiquity of always-on, broadband connections to it, and most importantly, the massive amounts of computing power and bandwidth available to run such worlds at a relatively low cost. Second Life and the parallel universes that ultimately follow it are just that; universes, not places. They can expand infinitely, and if you don’t like how commercial the “city” has gotten, you can build yourself a commune and live out in the wilderness.… Read more »
Kai Clarke
15 years 6 months ago

I disagree with many of my BrainTrust panelists. They are confusing virtual with online. Just because a product or experience is online, does not make it virtual. A virtual reality encompasses our senses, per se, not necessarily a presence online. Virtual presence can be created on TV, through film, online or other media formats.

The key here is that we should not be confusing the experience that these offer with that of a real-world experience. At no time does a virtual sandwich ever come close to the real thing. Duplicating the feeling of eating, let alone the peripheral senses from smell, taste, sound, feel and look is currently an impossible task. It may remain this way for many years to come. We can come close to this visually, but that is all (so far).

Mark Lilien
15 years 6 months ago

Second Life and its competitors are a novel marketing hook. Today. Yesterday. But tomorrow, after they’re deluged with copycat advertisers, the effectiveness will decline. Any new medium, when new, can be standout effective. But the effectiveness leads to clutter, overuse, and less imagination. The medium gets polluted. Who wants to live in pollution? Remember seeing the first animated web site? The first infomercial? The first movie theater ad?

Bill Bittner
Bill Bittner
15 years 6 months ago

I won’t say how long ago this was, but this reminds me of a Playboy fiction article I read during college (I only bought the magazine for the articles). In this article the “individual” discovered that the whole world it was experiencing was virtual. That in fact, it was merely a brain sitting inside of a module designed to provide sustenance while the brain itself imagined a world that did not actually exist.

It seems we’re one step closer.

The bad news is this world doesn’t need any retailers.

Rick Moss
15 years 6 months ago

Online retailers – take apparel marketers, for instance – have been improving the virtual experience all along so that it’s now possible to get a better “feel” for what you’re buying. It will continue to improve, but the difference that sites like Second Life offer is the social involvement and entertainment value. Consumers stick around for hours, experimenting with the product, trying options and testing looks.

If real-world marketers can gain acceptance into that world, they’ll get more attention (and feedback) than they could ever expect from traditional media — and possibly even more than in a real store.


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