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A luxury handbag by Stella McCartney worth £600 ($960) is the prize in an online game to design the best virtual outfit featuring the accessory, using real items on sale in Matches, a real store. Players of a game created by Fantasy Shopper will pick the winner. The firm is a pioneer of “relevant social gaming”. This combines features of online games such as FarmVille and World of Warcraft with data and deeds from the real world.
“Gamification” is an ugly word, but it sounds like money to some. Online games are fun. Why not borrow some of that fun and apply it to real life? This can be hard. Plenty of firms have flopped by trying to bolt a gaming element unconvincingly onto a boring pre-existing website. Fantasy Shopper was designed from the start as a hybrid between game and real-world activity says its founder, Chris Prescott.
Players visit a city (London for now, New York and others to follow) and compete to find bargains and assemble the best outfits using virtual money to spend on goods actually sold in shops there. The choices can be published on Facebook news feeds, where other players vote on the looks on offer. Besides the occasional shot at winning an expensive handbag, players are rewarded virtually, with badges and the like to show off to friends, and vouchers they can use at real shops.
Mr Prescott reckons that Fantasy Shopper will appeal to those who shop as much for the fun of the chase as for the kill. The game already has an enthusiastic following among girls aged 20-25, he says. Retailers have been quick to team up with the firm because it helps with promoting products and gives instant feedback from potential customers about what is likely to sell. Soon it is likely to offer stores the ability to lure in players as they pass by with offers on their mobile phones.
The main appeal of Fantasy Shopper and similar “social shopping” firms is their potential to transform fashion retailing by generating vast amounts of data on shoppers’ tastes. The trick will be to keep adding new players and, even harder, to keep existing ones fully engaged. For Fantasy Shopper, the big test will come when it opens in America, probably within weeks.
So far it has played a deft hand. In November, one month after launching, Fantasy Shopper beat 1,500 rivals to win the Amazon Global Start-up Challenge. It is rumoured to have turned down an offer from Amazon. In January the company secured funding from Accel Partners and NEA, two Silicon Valley venture-capital outfits.
Yet Fantasy Shopper is based far from any high-tech hub, in the English town of Exeter. Thanks to the ubiquity of cloud computing, entrepreneurs can start firms anywhere, says Mr Prescott. Even in Devon, a county better known for cream teas than digital cookies.
It is not just traditional shopaholics who may get hooked on Fantasy Shopper. Mr Prescott claims that the male geeks in his office have realised that they can reduce the risk of being laughed at for their fashion choices by posting pictures of clothes they want to buy in advance, to see what reaction they get before they splash the cash. For fashion victims of every kind, “pre-purchase validation” could be a game-changer.