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Virtual clotheshorses


Corilyn Shropshire

Houston Chronicle

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, 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 cars.

Launched in April 2007, claims to have "sold" 46 million virtual clothing items. Another online hangout, celebrity-driven, 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,'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 avatar, "Kanbii".

Huff spends four to five hours a day in the comic-book- and animι-inspired virtual world of, 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 virtual marketplace.

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, 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 isn't.

"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 product.

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 Scion.

"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."





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