3D Virtual Malls, a Throwback to 1998?

OK. Maybe this isn’t a fair question to ask the Monday morning after Black Friday, especially if you’ve mentally tallied up the dough you blew during a frenzied weekend of shopping, but I’ll do it anyway: did you really enjoy your predawn trip to the mall?

Granted, a lot of savvy ClickZ readers probably didn’t set foot in a mall or a big-box store this fateful Friday. Rather than fight your way through the predawn crowds of bleary-eyed soccer moms stoked up on coffee and donuts to score big deals, you’re probably jumping online today (Cyber Monday as it’s now known) to do your holiday shopping online. Why the heck would you want to shop in a physical store, deal with parking, wait in long lines, and tote all your purchases to the counter while listening to crying and begging kids, harried clerks, and all the other joys of the mall?

Let’s face it: shopping in the real world, especially this time of year, stinks. But all 1990s-era predictions about the end of the mall aside, real-world shopping still exists mainly because the mall isn’t as much about shopping as it is about entertainment. Hardcore shopaholics might be entertained by Black Friday festivities, but considering where e-commerce is heading, more folks are turning to shopping online to beat real-world hassles. Online shopping is quicker, easier, and (for the most part) screaming-kid free.

None of this is news to you. But that’s why I’m flabbergasted by an apparent resurgence of virtual malls from developers wanting to cash in on the questionable success of 3-D worlds like Second Life. Once hyped as the next next big thing (and flocked to by dozens of big brands desperate to appear hip), the Second Life “Story Too Good To Check” is starting to fade as marketers flee from the online virtual world’s raunchy free-for-all — and prodigious churn rate.

Yet just as it’s becoming apparent that the Emperor might have a wardrobe malfunction, start-ups Kinset and MallPlus are getting attention on the fringes of the marketing blogosphere. Each bills itself as a virtual mall and utilizes now-familiar 3-D features such as avatars, virtual walkthroughs, and a somewhat realistic shopping environment. You log in, walk around, look at products, and buy them…just like in a brick-and-mortar mall.

This may just be an example of me-too-ism from some opportunists looking to cash in on the hype around 3-D worlds, social networking, and the growing realm of online shopping. But for those old enough to remember, the term “virtual mall” should send you into dot-bomb-like spasms of déjà vu. The virtual mall concept came and went, sort of, in 1998 (though some diehards still exist, such as USA Virtual Mall, BlackHills.net Virtual Mall, and the Space Coast Metropolis Mall) as e-commerce heated up. At that time, people finally realized online shopping would be about building mega-brands with features that facilitate online shopping (see Amazon), not repurposing real-world metaphors in cyberspace.

What kinds of features? Features that drive us to shop online: recommendations, comparisons, quick checkout, great deals, online reviews, a good selection of merchandise, and convenience. We shop online because the environment gives us things we can’t get in the real world and doesn’t replicate what we’re trying to get away from in the first place.

I’m not writing this to be a crabby old naysayer but rather to make a point that bears repeating as we all scramble to stay on top of tsunami-like changes. While shiny graphics and breathless press releases are powerful influencers (not to mention well-funded tradeshow booths and savvy sales folks), one thing that’s been proven time and again on the Internet is the stuff that works best online is the stuff that can only happen online. EBay couldn’t happen in the real world. Neither could Amazon, Google, Webkinz, or other top online brands. What works best on the Web is what works best on the Web.

As you shop online today, ponder why you’re shopping online instead of at the mall. Your reasons are the same ones your customers have when they interact with you online. If you want to make them happy, give them an experience that’s available only online.

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