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Summary:

Any seasoned fashionista knows that shopping is serious business, but that doesn’t explain why most retail sites are so boring. New service Fantasy Shopper wants to inject more fun into buying online by turning it into a social game. Can it succeed?

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Retailers might be suffering from the economic downturn, but shopping is still big business — particularly online. Money is being pumped into e-commerce sites left, right and center, and all kinds of to try and get people buying over the web. That’s all very good, say the team behind new site Fantasy Shopper — but where’s the fun? What if shopping was a game?

That’s the premise behind the service, which is launching in the U.K. today with a grand plan and a ton of ambition.

The basic idea is simple. Users — players, perhaps, is a better term — are given virtual currency to go and spend on outfits and accessories currently stocked by real shops. They can visit in-game storefronts, sift through hundreds of thousands of items from some of Britain’s biggest retailers, test items, build outfits and put their purchases in a virtual wardrobe. There are lots of engaging avenues for experimentation, and then every few hours they get an injection of cash into their account, in what is termed a “payday”. The more they play, share and unlock, the more their paydays are worth.

You’d be forgiven for thinking all this sounds like a terrible Facebook game: it is, after all, something like a virtual doll service for adults, which makes it sound like a very acquired taste.

But, crucially, the site also doubles as a fashion radar, since players can share things they might actually buy, get feedback from their friends and make decisions about real-world purchases. And given that the average player seems to be a woman in her early 20s, that could be significant.

“The original idea was that people would be rewarded for fashion sense,” says co-founder Chris Prescott. “We wanted to turn the world into a catwalk.”

So far, so good. But what about the product itself? How does it work?

Fantasy Shopper

From the very start, it’s easy to use and intuitive. Sign-up, naturally, is through Facebook — but once you’re inside, first time users are taken on a great journey around the site with hinting that is informative, not intrusive. Sometimes the amount of features inside the site felt a little overwhelming — all the wardrobes, storefronts, activities and reward mechanisms — but after a while I actually found that they actually drew me in. In the end, the whole experience was much more gamelike than I had expected.

The world inside Fantasy Shopper is not noisy yet, largely because the beta was very limited and this is a soft launch. But as players are encouraged to share their purchases more and more, it’s likely to get far busier. And it’s the same in terms of scope, too: for example today the site has just one virtual location, London, which means it is limited to British retailers. Over the next few months the company plans to roll out new elements, and allow players to unlock new cities — with New York and Paris set to come on stream soon.

Still, many of the major British stores are already in place, from New Look to Karen Millen to Harrods, and huge amounts of inventory is being pulled in from official sources like affiliate feeds. Right now the site has about 200,000 items for people to play with, and hopes to quadruple that over the next six months. The team say they are already making progress with bringing in data from U.S. retailers, which will allow American users to join up.

It’s developing a smart way of making money too, by taking commission every time an in-game purchase turns into real one. This is fairly traditional of course, but the important thing is that conversion rates are much, much higher than average — because by the time a player has decided to turn their fantasy purchase into a real one, they have already experimented with it, shared it with friends, discussed it and thought about it.

Fantasy ShopperSo, here’s the crucial question: is it good?

I think so. While I can safely say I am not in the target market — I loathe shopping and command the sort of fashion sense that would most likely leave Anna Wintour considering whether it was better to end it all right now — I was surprised to find myself drawn in, sifting through mountains of clothes and shoes to find what I liked and playing around with outfits. It was easy and engaging in a way I didn’t expect.

And if I got snagged, imagine what it’s like if you really like shopping. In fact, even while activity on the site right now is fairly muted because it’s so early in its lifespan, many of the beta testers are clearly already hooked, with some racking up hundreds of paydays and many hours on site in just a short space of time: this blogger, for example, says she is “a Fantasy Shopper addict”.

True, there is work to be done: in some places the experience feels like it needs to be more open; more shops need to come in; outfit creation feels a little clunky; sometimes the regular callouts to share what you’re doing on Facebook are a bit pushy. But it feels like a really well-formed service.

Prescott said this was intentional, and that the team (which is based in the English city of Exeter) had decided long ago to avoid launching too early.

“We think our users are used to a certain level of quality,” he says. “We’ve been quite aware of what users want, and it’s taken a long time to build because we certainly wanted to launch a polished product. This is the minimum viable product relative to what we’re trying to build.”

That was part of the reason the site took seed funding from pan-European incubator program HackFWD, based in Germany, which gives teams a year to work on their ideas and prepare a product, with a strong focus on getting the technical foundations in place. That has certainly paid off: the site is smooth, comfortable and very sharp.

But here’s the thing that’s really working in the site’s favor: Fantasy Shopper is actually more useable and intuitive than many real retail websites.

It’s just more fun.

Play isn’t just an afterthought

Of course, part of it is because you don’t have any skin in the game. The money is virtual. When you go to Amazon or wherever, you’re out to spend real money — not to muck about. But while the play elements could be gimmicky (gamification is, after all, a controversial subject) the fact is that it’s done pretty well. But it’s not just that the transactions are playful, suggests Prescott: it’s because the whole idea has been thought through properly.

“What Fantasy Shopper isn’t is a commerce site with a game layer, and it isn’t a game with e-commerce thrown on top of it,” he says. “One of those is done to create engagement, one of those is done to create revenue. We’re definitely big believers in avoiding that. We don’t want to make it feel disjointed from the core offering. We’re trying to recreate the emotional experience of shopping.”

In fact, he points out, shopping is already a sort of game for many people: you have to enter a store, uncover the items you like, experiment with them, show them to your friends, hunt for bargains and so on. Lots of those elements are incorporated, to some degree, inside Fantasy Shopper — which is partly what makes it so engaging.

So how will it fare? Well, that’s difficult to say. It’s a strong product, but there’s a lot of competition, either fairly directly from sites like Polyvore, a fashion trend site, or indirectly from other services and games that suck up attention. Even big retailers and store services like Shopify, which announced $15 million in funding yesterday, could be considered rivals in a way: they’re all fighting for the same bits of attention.

But if there’s one thing the team doesn’t lack, it’s confidence. In the short term, Fantasy Shopper is planning to roll out lots of new ideas, and is working on a partnership with one of Britain’s biggest magazine publishers that should give it plenty of exposure with the right audience.

In the longer term, it’s working on broad expansion to new markets and thinks it can become a serious fashion destination for consumers and retailers alike: “We can see actually trends rising before they appear in the shops, because people are experimenting on the site,” says Prescott. “We’ve got real-time trending analysis, sentiment analysis, lots of cool stuff going on.”

He says the team has plenty of ways to fend off the competition and grab user attention, and is currently working on a new round of funding to try and build up the service even further. Until that happens, this is definitely one to watch.

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