CEO John Butler explains that his product is different than Second Life as Second Life attracts hobbyists who invest time to learn how to move around in SL, how to dress themselves and creating their avatars, and from then on use the site for socializing. Kinset is meant to be a "no-learning" high fidelity retail space for actual shopping rather than fantasy.
The following is a quick 6 minute clip of Butler's interview with Scott Kirsner of the Boston Globe.
I downloaded the Kinset browser and took the "Buncha Books" store for a test drive. I'm not a gamer by any stretch of the imagination and I found navigating my way through the virtual bookstore a frustrating experience. Moving around, at least for me, will take some serious learning time. Plus the browser froze up on me repeatedly and I got stuck in one place trying to get out a few times, much like crashing Mario Kart into a wall and not knowing how to get back on the race track. Other hiccups included not being able to scroll down when trying to read product descriptions in frames, and descriptions and dialog boxes popping up almost randomly and covering up items I was looking at. (Granted, I was going mouseless with my laptop).
It also feels a bit lonely in a deserted store, without even a trace of an overeager salesperson. Interactive customer service personnel are promised within the next year. It would be neat to also have a shop-with-friends experience with live chat, which is closer to what Second Life shopping offers.
What's great about the Buncha Books virtual bookstore is that it's tied up to Amazon's inventory -- so you know that you're getting a huge selection that includes the long tail (though you may need to get specific with your product searches). But you miss out on price comparison from other sellers that makes the Amazon experience so much better. It's left to speculation as to how leisure shopping converts compared to traditional ecommerce web sites with robust search features and faceted navigation.
When you select an item you can add to cart and your order will be processed through Amazon. So any Kinset store would work the same for other online retailers -- the transaction taking place on the retailer's website.
Kinset claims its technology can increase online sales because in "real life," undirected leisure shopping is "one of the highest margin parts" of retail business. By browsing, the shopper gets that serendipitous experience of stumbling across something interesting. Now shoppers can go back to judging a book by its cover, rather than finding an item through relevant search or cross-sell/upsell.
It also suggests that "the very best retail web sites are all converging on a standard of excellent, but boring, sameness." (I disagree). By creating virtual stores with unique look-and-feel, Kinset hopes to spice up online shopping. So far, Tweeter and Brookstone have hooked up with Kinset to create virtual stores, and Kinset hopes to have 12 by next holiday season.
For multichannel retailers, not only can you recreate the ambiance of your brick-and-mortar shops, but you can potentially split-test new physical store layouts and product arrangements in a virtual world. How reliable such tests are for assessing real life experiences is yet to be determined.
Virtual stores cost between $50K for less than 1,000 products up to $100K for more complex stores. Kinset will set up the basic design and configuration and hand over a store that you can then manage on your own. Here's a peek at the user interface for changing around your store layout:
Though an interesting concept (which inevitably was going to happen), I won't be using such sites until the technology and usability improves. But kudos to Kinset for pioneering this innovation. We'll see what evolves from here.