Virtual Honolulu mall debuts
Shoppers can create their own persona and purchase items without leaving home
For consumers wanting to avoid crowded shopping centers and rising gas prices, look no further than your local virtual mall.
Honolulu's first virtual 3-D shopping mall, VirtualEHonolulu.com, was opened this week by Louisville, Ky., entrepreneur Mark Stein, who has launched virtual centers in 125 major U.S. cities through VirtualEShopping.com.
Similar to the latest video game technology, shoppers can create an online "persona," with their own facial features, skin tones, hair and clothing, and they can walk, shop and chat electronically with other virtual people without leaving home.
"This lets you go and shop at midnight in your pajamas and chat with people and have social interaction with people so that shopping on the Web is no longer a solitary experience," Stein said.
For instance, Honolulu residents will be able to ask friends to meet them at the lobby of the online mall at a certain time, talk and walk around together, see storefronts, purchase goods and collect coupons via salesbots - humanlike personas that have pre-recorded audio messages and can distribute coupons redeemable at participating merchants
The company is targeting women, particularly stay-at-home moms, single men, seniors and 18- to 24-year-olds looking for an alternative networking environment to myspace.com and facebook.com, which offer a two-dimensional system.
"They can get some of their social needs met that they can't do otherwise," he said.
The benefits of shopping at the virtual mall as opposed to going directly to a retailer's site is the ichat capability, finding new stores through touring the mall and special coupons not offered anywhere else, Stein said. Shoppers also can tour specialty malls strictly for men, women or teens.
Besides convenience, the system is designed for small businesses that don't have money for advertising.
Advertisers bid for their position in the mall and bid on the amount they're willing to pay for shoppers that click the links to their sites. Bids start at 10 cents a click, with no fees attached. There is no cost for shoppers.
In addition, retailers, attractions or professionals such as doctors and Realtors who can't afford rent at a physical center can advertise on storefronts, mall carts, billboards/kiosks and on the homepage while setting a daily limit on what they want to spend. The system can re-create an exact storefront in a Honolulu mall for about $5,000 to $10,000.
For now, the virtual Honolulu mall is starting with national retailers, but eventually will try to replace them with local stores.
"This is an international way for local people who have Web sites to have international exposure," he said. "They can have storefronts not just in Honolulu's malls, they can be in every mall."
The Delaware-based startup was launched nearly three years ago and has 18 employees. By the end of September, it expects to have virtual malls in 275 major cities worldwide, including Mumbai, India, and Tokyo.