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Retailing in Second Life
The Evolution of Branding in a Virtual World

by Edward Vintner


In this article I want to present my experiences with retailing and branding in Second Life - one of the largest virtual economies - and take you through some of the "realities" of virtual reality. If you are considering Second Life in your social media strategy you may benefit from an understanding of the nuances of the virtual world to best enter the experience and complement your real life brand expression.

Second Life is a virtual interactive environment designed by Linden Labs. It's a rich, multimedia experience populated by resident avatars, and at any time 24/7 there are between 50,000 to 70,000 people logged into the "in-world" experience. It is an international virtual community with the majority of people logging in from the Americas and Europe. Here's more from Linden Labs:

"Developed and launched by Linden Lab in 2003, Second Life is the world's leading 3D virtual world environment. It enables its Residents to create content, interact with others, launch businesses, collaborate, educate, and more. Since its inception, Second Life Residents have logged more than one billion user hours and generated more than USD1 billion in user-to-user transactions. With a broad user base that includes everyone from consumers and educators to medical researchers and large enterprises, Second Life has become one of the largest hubs of user-generated content and the largest user-generated virtual goods economy in the world."

There is an excellent overview of Second Life here -

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It has developed into quite a serious economy for participants and Linden Labs. In 2009 Linden Labs estimates the virtual "economy" at over $500 million USD, and in that year residents withdrew $55 million in real life USD currency. And yes this is an economy of "virtual" products and services, with the most notable "products" being real estate (yes you can buy a virtual home on a virtual island), animations (everything from ways of walking, dancing, gestures, and sexual adventures), clothing and body parts (and that includes special shapes, "skins" and ahem .... sexual organs.) All products are indeed created by the residents and for most new non-creators it doesn't take very long to ante in significant real life currency to enhance their "in-world" experience.

Here are a few examples to illustrate the in-world experience:

Why buy land or a house or other "stuff"?

You can create your own island paradise and indulge yourself with homes, gazebos, fountains, palm trees, plants, landscaping, fountains, docks, planes, helicopters, jet skis, skydiving, furniture, sex beds, paintings, scultures and artwork, animated dogs, cats, pelicans, kites, dolphins and killer whales, audio and video streams, musical instruments, animated dances, fireworks, and whatever else you can imagine.

Why buy clothing, animations and body parts? All about personal expression!

Here's an example of the difference a "quality" skin makes, with the same shape, hair and clothes. Why be a "default" avatar when you can "express yourself" far more "attractively" as I have, for a small fee of course.

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So we have some very compelling "drivers" for the "economy" - creativity, indulgence, fantasy, self expression - and all for a fraction of real world cost. The exchange rate for in-world currency is approximately $1000 Linden (Second Life currency) for $4 USD. For reference, "buying" a virtual island costs $2500 Linden weekly, and one time costs for products include an outfit for L$600, boots L$400, skin L$2000, dance animation L$300, hair L$400, tattoos L$200 and so on. The majority of players are net purchasers of products however there are many resident creators who are the net recipients of currency. They are the virtual entrepreneurs that collectively withdrew $55 million USD in 2009.

The Second Life economy is significant and shopping and retailing - buying and selling "stuff" - is a key element of the in-world experience for most residents. And just as in the real world, retailing in Second Life is evolving and spans a wide spectrum from the most hap hazard "flea markets" to more sophisticated and focused branding.

All of the following snapshots highlight retail venues currently in operation on Second Life, and we will start a tour from the very "primitive" to what I see as the very best.

Flea markets can be an adventure if you're so inclined and there are many "shops" to explore. Products are typically sold in a container and that has been initially interpreted as a box. So let's have boxes everywhere, plain boxes, coloured boxes, silly boxes, confusing boxes. Fine if you have time to explore but so confusing, and ... silly.

Then we have the disorganized clutter. And since this is a virtual word, you don't really need walls to feature products on, or displays or fixtures. Everything is defined with three dimensional coordinates in virtual space, so you can do whatever you want to do. (And I'm in the pictures as I didn't yet find out how to take photos properly - it's an ongoing process of discovery.)

More clutter and confusion. Absolutely no rhyme or reason to the product offering. Nothing, nada! The following shots give flea markets a bad rap. Very silly. (And yes you can fly in Second Life - very cool!)

More clutter and confusion, although the shot on the left is getting a little more focused, selling outfits, boots, and ... is that a little pixie thing ... hummmm. With the shot on the right I never did figure out what they were selling. Sorry to criticize someone's self expression but it's just not good at all.

It's time to introduce an important element of Second Life that seriously affects retailing - "rezzing". In Second Life you "teleport" between virtual regions, yes just like on Star Trek where you vaporize and appear at your destination. Depending on the power of your computer and your graphics card it takes time to "rez" - for the virtual world objects to appear on your screen. The more virtual objects there are, the longer it takes to "rez" them all, and more does become less, in terms of the shopping experience. More clutter, longer time to rez, more frustration, and usually the potential buyer just leaves, especially if there's nothing to confirm that you're even at the right destination.

Now we're seeing a little more organization. The shop on the left is clearly female apparel, and obviously the seller feels a need to max out on the use of space. A little more focus though and that's a good thing. On the right, we see a fixation on walls but there is an element of organization to make it easier to shop, but oh my ... the floor almost gave me a seizure. And what a waste of space! (You pay for land by the footprint in sq meters.) Needless to say I haven't bought anything so far.

We've all heard that retail is location, location, location. So the enterprising retailers in Second Life want to locate where the people are. And where are the people? A lot of them frequent clubs, so let's put our shops near the clubs. Make sense? It makes good sense to the club land owners that rent the spaces to the retailers. But I suspect that very few of the shops around clubs sell much at all.

When you go to a club in real life or Second Life do you expect to shop? Possibly. Perhaps if you can see the shops as in the shots below, and especially if there's something new. In most Second Life clubs you can't see the shops. and for the shops below nothing has changed in at least six months. Many land owners that create clubs to draw people and rent shops to retailers, try to force people to walk by the shops to reach the club. It sort of works to rent the shops however, it's ultimately very silly and quite a turn off. In the shots below none of the shops have anything resembling a brand appeal, and it's more of a hodgepodge of independent and unrelated offerings.

There is hope.

Here is a store that only sells tattoos. It does take a little time to "rez" but from the moment you land you're very clear you're in a tattoo store, and the open space gives you the opportunity to scan the perimeter. The walls are dense but easy to see. The open space has spots to try on the products and adjust your appearance. A definite improvement.

Oh, how did I find it? Tried a search for tattoos and the shop came up in the top ten. (Shades of Search Engine Optimization!) I did buy a few and have referred many people to the store. I suspect they are building their brand through resident referrals as well as their narrow product focus and solid ranking in search. Good job!

Here's a popular menswear store. It's organized, rezzes quickly, has room to maneuver, uses floor displays as well as nicely organized walls. Notice also that the "container" for products are beyond "boxes". A flat panel is a "box" of different proportions whether on a wall or as a floor display. Clean, organized, easy to shop. Getting better!

Getting even better .... on the left a shop that sells female hair, with a wide open entrance with just a few items to allow faster rezzing, and signage highlighting best sellers and new products. Thoughtfully created for the "realities" of virtual reality. On the right even more space to maneuver with clearly articulated departments for their offering. Is the virtual brand name important? Perhaps, but not likely for this example.

The name is not easily visible in the following shots but it's clear they sell boots. Lots of boots. Only boots. Very nicely organized, lots of space and easy to shop. The products are the stars. Are colours important? Definitely yes, and the dark exterior and floor detract from the overall impact. It's well done otherwise.

More good stuff. On the left we have a shopping district adjacent to an event area for live concerts. (Yes they have live performers.) The shops are clearly visible, each with a focused assortment and frame the courtyard. On the right is a very popular store for skins, very well organized, easy to shop with lots of space to maneuver. They often feature new products and have a large clientele.

Now for the best stuff!

In virtual reality it doesn't rain, unless you want it to, people can't take things, unless they own it by having created it or purchased it, and design is only limited by your imagination. Here is a store that sells jewelry and piercings. There is no store front, just a wide open "landing" area where you very quickly "get" what they have to offer, interesting artwork, room to maneuver, floor displays, nice use of wall panels, and an overall "easy to shop" experience. Very warm and inviting colours and starting to have the feel of a special indulgent experience. It's a larger store located within a commercial shopping region. Very well done!

Here's another higher end store getting it more "right" than others.

The left shot is the "landing" area and it does take some time to rez. But you know where you are. Guess what they sell? Male and female "skins." (Spend some in Second Life and it would be intuitively obvious.) Very nice approach. (A welcome of some sorts would be nice.) On the right the store entrance is spacious and inviting. Wide open and luxurious. Intuitive to see female on the left, male to the right - intuitively obvious is important.

Look left - all female products. Look right - all male products. Simple, clear, easy, I like it. By the way they do have very good skins - the best I've found so far. I am a customer.

They are one of a few stores on a region and might benefit from having their own region to minimize "lag" (created by the the rezzing of virtual objects and avatars). They have a great assortment but nothing new on a regular basis. Excellent store anyway.

Here's the best I've found so far ... GothiCatz.

Great name, unique, a new brand. I like it!

On the left is the arrival area and it's very clear where you are. Great sign and posters and it's very intuitively obvious that they sell female and male apparel. It's large scale, huge really, and they have their own region to express themselves anyway they want. A little closer in on the right where you can take your time to "rez" knowing you're at the right place and with a little anticipation about what's new - and they always have new "stuff".

Look left to the female side with massive wall displays and the latest outfits on floor panels. Look right to the male half with similar displays throughout the store. It does get a little "laggy" at time due to the quantity of "stuff" and especially the number of avatars coming to see the latest creations.

GothiCatz sells wardrobe "outfits" with mix and match components that fit very well with the Second Life viewer "outfit" features of inventorying clothing and accessories. The posters highlight the flexibility and multiple looks available and that adds to their value proposition. The designs are very creative and appealing. It's a very popular store and brand.

There's always something new. All of the latest designs are featured on the floor displays, and products flow back up into the walls as they are replaced with new creations. They have built a sizable inventory of excellent designs over time, and for new customers the store is an adventure to experience. And once a customer you will be a repeat and loyal customer, returning to see what's new or what you might have missed on your last visit. Excellent designs, attention to detail in the products including the brand label, continuous innovation - quite a recipe for success.

GothiCatz does it very well in creating a brand with excellent creations and many of the key considerations for the shopping experience in a virtual world. Think about: a dedicated region, unique products, attention to detail, wardrobing outfits, scale, signage, landing area, organization, easy to shop, freshness and always something new, search optimization, loyal customers that refer others, and a shopping experience that is an adventure. It's not unlike real life retailing where you can only cut through all the clutter by having appealing products and an experience that is positive and memorable.

What's next?

As you have seen, the retailing experiences in a virtual world span a spectrum from the most primitive to a clearly focused concept and mindful experience. You may have noticed that so far we're seeing a relatively static self-service model where the "experience" can be designed to be easy to shop and appealing. But what about service?

Service is a "missing link" and there's no doubt it will be the next great innovation in retailing in virtual reality. Service will be the next "great thing" to create a more engaging and memorable experience. We're seeing some of this emerging in the higher end offerings as in real estate purchases and in new product designers who are building their brand through event marketing, modeling, and friendly, knowledgeable people available in their stores to provide service. That might be a topic for another article.

If you are interested in developing or extending your brand into virtual reality let's have a conversation. We can do it right in terms of the "realities" of virtual reality and bring your brand to life "in-world."

Here's a little more info from the creator of Second Life FYI. Think about the possibilities.

For additional information please click through the following banner:

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The Author

Edward Vintner

Edward Vintner is Henry K's alter ego and avatar in Second Life. He is always interested in the next great adventure and helping clients succeed in the virtual world. You can contact Edward in-world by searching his name, or by e-mail c/o The CEO Refresher -

Many more articles in Social Media and High Performance Retail in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2010 by Edward Vintner. All rights reserved.

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