July 3, 2008
When she has money,
Keliesha Gardener heads to Forever 21 or Kohl's to try
to snag the latest gear.
But with no allowance or summer gig, shopping sprees for
this 16-year-old fashionista are as rare as the pink
diamond chandelier earrings she hopes to own someday.
So she turns to the virtual world of Zwinky.com, where
the digital version of herself sports a pair of red
pumps by Jessica Simpson, for a fraction of the cost.
This year, roughly 12 million 'tweens and teens are
expected to join Gardener in unleashing their inner
shopping fiends online, in virtual malls where they can
stretch real dollars into "Zbucks" and other currency
that they'll spend to spiff up their pixelated personas.
In a sense, they'll also do what many of them do in real
life anyway: hang out with friends or tool around in
cars to concerts, parties and proms but in designer
clothes and makeup.
Some of this virtual money is earned by playing games or
otherwise spending time on the sponsoring Web sites. But
these youths will spend an estimated $1.5 billion in
actual cash on digital bounty for clothes and
accessories, from jewelry and furniture to pets and
Launched in April 2007, Zwinky.com claims to have "sold"
46 million virtual clothing items. Another online
hangout, celebrity-driven Stardoll.com, boasts sales of
300,000 to 400,000 virtual items daily.
And in the past seven months, Gaia Online has sold
700,000 Scion cars with "virtual gold" earned by
investing time and activity on Gaia, according to Craig
Sherman, Gaiaonline.com's chief executive officer.
Spending money on things that don't actually exist may
be just the latest youthful craze that those of an older
generation don't understand. But the allure is obvious.
"You can go shopping every day if you have money," said
Gardener, whose avatar, a computer-generated alter ego
she named "Cho-clo-ate," (Her first choice, chocolate,
was taken.) has a better wardrobe than she does.
Trolling the mall and trying on clothes isn't a big deal
for Sarah Huff. The 15-year-old Deer Park resident is,
however, into buying virtual outfits to show off her
Huff spends four to five hours a day in the comic-book-
and animι-inspired virtual world of Gaiaonline.com,
where she frequents the "Durem Depot" to choose neopunk
chic clothing such as black leather pants or
fashion-forward evening dresses designed by recent
Project Runway champ Christian Siriano.
Huff always incorporates a bit of her own style into
Kanbii's look she bought herself a pair of rainbow
tights inspired by some she purchased for her avatar.
But the mixing and matching of earrings, shoes, gloves
and bracelets she buys to polish Kanbii's image is more
about Huff's fantasy and imagination than consumption.
At most Huff spends $2.50 a month shopping for Kanbii.
"Unfortunately I can't walk through a door and get money
for it like I can on Gaia," she said. Most of the 20 or
30 outfits she keeps in Kanbii's virtual closet were
free paid for with virtual money she earned from
hanging out and playing games on Gaia.
When, in a month or so, an outfit begins to look dated,
Huff earns more virtual bucks by selling them in Gaia's
Kanbii's expansive closet is nothing like Huff's
real-life one, which consists of about five or six pairs
of jeans and a few pairs of capri pants acquired during
one of her quarterly shopping excursions to the mall.
"You could not get me up off my butt to go to the mall
unless I absolutely had to," Huff said, laughing.
"That's why I like Gaia so much. As terrible as it
sounds, I don't have to move very far."
Debra Aho Williamson, a senior analyst with
eMarketer.com, said dressing up their digital lives
gives young people a safe way to figure out who they are
and what interests them. By trying out different
personalities and looks, or revamping their image
digitally, they can avoid the consequences that might
come with, say, a bad piercing or a tattoo.
Designer brands such as Hilfiger, Nike and DKNY are
aiming to capitalize on the trend setting up shop in
these new, virtual 21st-century malls and vying for this
coveted and tough-to-impress crowd of consumers while
they are still young, say youth-marketing experts.
Brands are "gaining the experience of what it might be
like to sell (real-life) goods virtually because it
could be a bigger thing down the line, not just for kids
and teens but for adults," Williamson said.
That worries Josh Golin, associate director of the
Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. The problem
with brands moving into virtual worlds is that there's
no clear separation between what's for sale and what
"The entire experience is commercial," he said, instead
of a 15- or 30-second ad.
"When it becomes a part of the story, it's so much more
powerful," Golin said.
Brands have yet to cash in on sales of real-life goods,
according to Erik Hauser, founder and creative director
of San Francisco-based marketing firm Swivel Media.
He likened virtual shopping to the early days of
Internet shopping, when consumers weren't yet used to
buying clothes off a computer screen.
There is an adoption curve.
Over time, consumers will spend more and buy brand names
with their avatars. But right now, for teens, Hauser
said, "there's something to be said about the whole
social dynamic of being a teenager, going out with your
mom and your friends to the mall and touching" the
Plus, it's a pretty large leap from buying a pair of
designer jeans that cost 30 cents to spending $300 on a
real pair, he added.
In the meantime, brands are still learning, throwing out
ideas to see what sticks.
"I don't think any brand has gotten to the point where
the amount of money they are spending in the virtual
world, they are putting on a spreadsheet and saying this
makes financial sense," he said.
For Huff, name brands or hot trends don't matter. That's
partly why she drew the line on buying her avatar a
"You can't do anything with them," she said. "I'd rather
drive a real car."
The $1 Gardener spent from her "Zcard" to buy Jessica
Simpson pumps was a rare purchase. Even though clothing
sold at the Zwinktopia mall cost from a few pennies to
about $2.50 in real life, Gardener has to make the $25
Zcard she was given last.
So she plays games and enters contests to earn Zbucks to
buy more affordable items such as a T-shirt from rapper
50 Cent's clothing line that she wore to a virtual
concert by the hip-hop star.
Even though Gardener would love to have more real
dollars to spend acquiringa glamorous wardrobe, for now
the easy-come-easy-go style she acquires for her avatar
works just fine.
"It's fun, and everything fits," Gardener said. "You can
try it on and change the colors, and if you don't like
it, you can just delete it."