At Canada Post’s virtual shopping mall you can shop…and never drop

When it comes to Christmas shopping is it possible to have your cake and eat it too? Is there a way Canadians get their shopping done, while avoiding crowded shopping malls, slushy winter weather and grumpy sales associates?

There is indeed says Canada Post – which recently unveiled a unique virtual shopping mall, Maple Grove.

Maple Grove is housed in Second Life – a virtual world developed by Linden Lab that’s accessible via the Internet.

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 Residents interact with one another through avatars. They can explore, meet other residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, and create and trade virtual property and services with one another, or travel throughout the world,

The virtual city is built on a SIM –a large plot of Second Life land that normally costs around $1,000 – rather than island, allowing avatars to walk through the four city streets of Maple Grove.

These streets are built to mirror communities across Canada, says Stephanie Bullock, director, segment management and direct marketing at Canada Post.

Second Life members can shop at all of the Maple Grove stores and purchase real-world gifts from retailer’s Web sites without exiting the virtual community, Bullock said.

“It’s a huge community of buyers that retailers can access for a very minimal cost,” she said, “and Second Life allows companies to learn more about the buying and browsing habits of a large network of people. It’s really a fun way to promote e-commerce sites.”

At the heart of the community is the post office, which allows avatars to buy virtual stamps. The post office is surrounded by ten retailers, including Toys ‘R Us, The Shopping Channel, Brookstone, Everything Olive, and a theatre.

Telus, the second largest telecommunications company in Canada, does not have a store per se at Maple Grove, but is sponsoring the Telus Theatre.

Here, avatars can gather for scheduled concerts throughout the holiday season by well-known Second Life artistes who perform live.

Many retailers provide special widgets to users who purchase products through Second Life. Telus gives each visitor a free virtual cell phone that lights up to mirror a cigarette lighter during a concert and a program that makes avatars’ hands rise in the air during shows.

Tami Gillespie, marketing manager at Telus, says Second Life helps expand her company’s brand, drives traffic to the Telus store and online gift guide and supports community arts in new ways.

“What’s great about this is new people are engaging and interacting with our brand in a fun way.”

Telus has had a store on Second Life for two years. It was the first major Canadian corporation to enter Second Life and the first major telecommunications company.

For a couple hundred Linden dollars, or a couple Canadian dollars, avatars can purchase a mobile phone to hold while they walk through the online community. While they do not function as a phone in any way, it’s a cool way to tell other users that you are busy.

“Our two years of experience have helped us watch what’s happening online and see how people are spending their time,” Gillespie said. “There is a whole new depth of engagement with the consumer.”

Maple Grove’s SIM was established a year ago but Canada Post has since introduced two new features in Maple Grove to promote entrepreneurship and provide guidance.

The Bright Ideas Lab was established by Canada Post to provide advice to small business owners. The Lab schedules roundtable discussions to aid business owners who want to engage in virtual communities and direct marketing to promote their business.

The Lab also provides tools with everything someone needs to create a virtual business, such as a template for a new store opening they can send to their customers within Second Life.

The Green Café is also a new addition to Maple Grove. Here avatars can sip a virtual cappuccino and learn about new ways to green their business.

Bullock says the business seminars and concerts really help drive traffic to their community. The SIM has received 5,500 unique visitors between October and December of this year.

For the businesses involved, Second Life is not just a way to sell more products, but also a useful tool for learning more about e-commerce and direct marketing through a new audience. “We really wanted to explore the benefits of social networking and learn about how we can promote e-commerce in new, fun ways.”

Rivers Run Red, an “immersive spaces” company that develops content, applications and business tools for the 3D virtual Web was one of the first companies to realize the brand-building capabilities of Second Life.

It was the world’s first company to work within the virtual world, creating and building a market for marketing with Second Life, and signing some of the biggest clients in the world, such as Coca-Cola, Vodafone and Adidas. 

Adidas-Reebok hired the London and San Francisco-based consulting firm to help market its new Reebok DJ 2 sneakers.

At the cost of buying a virtual island (around $2,000) for their store and a monthly rental fee (around $352) Rivers Run Red was able to create the Reebok store, which sold blank, customizable Reebok sneakers for Second Life residents for 50 Linden dollars.

The campaign began with users buying the sneakers for their avatar only but users can now click through Second Life and enter Reebok’s retail Web site to purchase personally configured shoes for the real world.

Since the campaign began, about two years ago, Reebok has sold 175,000 pairs of virtual sneakers with 100,000 different combinations. 100,000 pairs sold in the first week alone, said Rivers Run Red CEO Justin Bovington.

“What’s neat is users can run around in the shoes in Second Life, become familiar with the brand and then choose to purchase their custom-made shoes.”

The campaign has since ended but avatars can still customize their shoes to match the clothes they wear. The campaign’s strength lies in the culture of the virtual world, with dedicated users who will pay a about a quarter to improve the image of their avatar, Bovington said.

Reebok got great exposure as a result of the campaign as Second Life trends attract a lot of blogging and media attention.  It also helped Reebok better understand the types of design customers want, and so to improve their product design, he said.

“Catalogues and online Web sites are useful but a lot of people want to take a more active role in the design of their products.”

Bovignton said he expects more companies to move into the virtual space, as its popularity continues to soar (Second Life currently has approximately 14 million residents with about 50,000 users online at one time), and as corporate marketing budgets become tighter for the new year. 

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