Shop till you drop in the virtual world

One in five companies will be marketing their wares in virtual worlds within two years, according to research firm Gartner.

Members of Second Life already spend more than $1 million (490,000) every 24 hours, Gartner calculated. Online games could join Second Life and other virtual worlds as a place to advertise, and maybe even sell, goods and services.

Gartner has recommended that retailers look beyond bricks and mortar stores and conventional, web-based channels to environments such as Second Life, online games such as The Sims 2 and even social networking sites such as MySpace. Such initiatives are more important for retailers than aligning existing channels.

"Retailers need to stop thinking about channels - this is part of the problem - and more about the touchpoints consumers have with their brand. Shoppers nowadays have many and proliferating touchpoints with a retailer, many outside the traditional channels," said John Davison, managing vice president at Gartner. "These include social networking sites, review sites, podcasts, videocasts, RSS, blogs, wikis, folksonomies, social bookmarking and so on."

Gartner also identified a growing opportunity for retailers to make use of mobile phones to put their brand in front of consumers, not least because of the greatly improved web browsing capabilities of handsets such as the Nokia's N95 and Apple's iPhone.

But the firm remains skeptical about the value of mobile phones for actual purchases. Most consumers will use their mobile phones to research products or to find offers and prices, but will still go to a conventional website or a physical store to complete the transaction.

Retailers wanting to make use of the mobile channel today need to "start small" and allow for the differences between network operators, said Gartner.