In the last quarter of 2006, the one that clenched Circuit City in gross margin pressures and sent the chain into a season of corporate restructuring and store closings, a design team made up of Circuit City and IBM Web developers was hard at work on a store opening. The store would be a prototype, set in a market with unbelievably good demographics: 2.7 million residents and growing 15 percent every month, average age 35, all fairly big spenders. The two-story store would be set on a seaside cliff, with a nice bench in front of the entrance for visitors to pause and enjoy the view. They might enjoy it from the big, bay windows on the top floor too, right next to the free popcorn machine.
The design team had this new Circuit City up and running, from the first drawings to the grand opening on December 15th, in a record thirty days. “Fastest store we ever opened,” said Bill McCorey, Circuit City’s senior vice president and chief information officer, who confesses that he spends a lot of time on that ocean-view bench, chatting with the clientele. In fact, McCorey can virtually leave himself on that bench all day long. In Second Life, the three-dimensional Web world where this new Circuit City remains constantly open on constantly sunny days, a lot is virtually possible.
Consumer electronics retailers have long been interested in finding new ways to do business online. In the early days of e-commerce, they posted products on the Web as a natural extension of their catalog/mail-order operations. In the recent years, the “Web 2.0” stage of the Internet’s evolution, progressive e-tailers have experimented with features that encourage more interactivity such as virtual sales assistants who chat, instant-message-style, with site visitors. Now, retailers are taking tentative steps into a “3D Web” world, one that looks a lot like a video game, where customers can design their own body (a.k.a. “avatar”) and walk that body into a store to get some popcorn, settle on a couch in front of a high-end home theater display, and watch a movie. In the case of Circuit City, designers hope that computer-simulated reality will lead to real-world buzz and, of course, sales.