December 20, 2006, 12:00 AM

Circuit City sees the virtue of virtual marketing

IBM and Circuit City Stores Inc. are moving virtual worlds and 3-D environments out of video games and into the e-retailing marketplace.

IBM and multi-channel electronics retailer Circuit City are exploring ways to apply 3-D environments and virtual worlds-and people--to retail business models.

For starters, the companies have opened a prototype virtual Circuit City store, which replicates in three dimensions products available in Circuit City stores and on CircuitCity.com. The prototype store is part of IBM’s Second Life virtual world.

One of the experiments will enable consumers to use their “avatar,” a 3-D virtual representation of themselves, to stroll the aisles of the computer-generated Circuit City store and pick up and examine products in a way that resembles real life. Customers could then order those items to be delivered to their homes, much like they order on the Internet.

Some of the features under development will highlight Circuit City’s strategy of providing multi-channel consumer touch points, driving customer service and extending its community of customers and experts from its stores and forums online to the virtual world.

An “immersive” feature that IBM and Circuit City are experimenting with includes an interactive home theater set-up, where customers can recreate their own home environment and determine the optimal size television to purchase based on room dimensions.

“Teaming with IBM in the virtual world is as much about sensing and learning from the community as it is about commerce,” says Bill McCorey, senior vice president and chief information officer of Circuit City. “Our ultimate goal is to understand the implications of virtual 3-D worlds on multi-channel retailing and to extend the connection we have with our customers to new spaces.”

The companies also are researching the addition of features in customer service. For example, instead of customers calling in with a technical issue, they can go to the 3-D virtual environment and learn how to examine the product, where to find the problem and get it resolved.

Circuit City is No. 17 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide to Retail Web Sites.

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