Sales are Sales are Sales

Those of you waiting for another in my series of posts on In-World Search … I’m sorry but today’s post is on a related but tangential topic. However, since I am the very best blogger in the known universe, you might as well read anyway. Shoot, you might even learn something new. (And if not, I promise I’ll give full refunds for every Monopoly dollar spent reading this. Honest!)

There are two “Camps” within the boundaries of Second Life (like we really need more opposing groups in the world) but they are firmly entrenched, have strong and sensible arguments on their sides, and tend to lock horns with each other from time to time .. usually in the spotlight of a forum or other public venue. Today’s post is my effort to offer a method of merging these two groups into one cohesive whole AND fix another of the problems plaguing Second Life and Linden Lab in the process. Yeah, I’m a dreamer. But if you’re gonna aim, aim high … right?

Does It Matter Where?

When someone purchases a Virtual Product for use in Second Life they have basically two choices. The original means was always the venerable In-World Sales. You take yourself (and bring your human too) and teleport around until you find the store that sells whatever it is you want to purchase. Then you navigate the vendor device the seller uses to dispense their product (and some are flat-out mind-bending .. but that’s another rant for another time) and then within a hopefully short period of time later the product is delivered to you as an Inventory Transfer of some sort. There’s all sorts of steps between the “Want” and the “Get”, but the primary determinant is that all of them are done while In-World.

Several years ago some bright-minded whiz kids cooked up the idea of creating another path to getting your goodies … Offline Sales. There’s been a ton of names come and go, but the really important attribute of these sites was that you didn’t have to be logged in to Second Life to find and purchase your wantables. A lot of us addicts found that we could assuage our needs to spend the last few Linden Dollars in our pockets while sitting in front of a work computer and not able to do the “Teleport Shuffle”. In fact, it had other benefits such as cross-Merchant searching, wider range of products visible and the ability to read a lot more about specific products than we could while shopping In-World.

When you shop In-World, you can test stuff out. It’s really tough to preview the animations in a new piece of furniture or check the controls on a Space Flyer from an offline website. But then again being able to read the specs, permissions, warranty info and instructions on In-World items is equally problematic. There’s reasons for both of course … and some of them are at the core of the dispute between the aforementioned Battlecamps.

But The REAL Reason Is …

The really emotional arguments though are never based on differences in positives, they are always based on perceived negatives. When someone feels like the “other guy” is taking something away … THAT’s when it gets nasty. Well, it’s nasty between the two groups and that nastiness is over something fairly trivial but complicated. (Yeah, I know what an oxymoron is. Trust me, this is one fer sure!)

The rallying battle cry that usually starts out the debates is “Offline Sales are Killing In-World Sales!” The logic behind that statement is that people who purchase their virtual goods from an offline sales site are in some fashion taking sales away from In-World Merchants. Logically it makes sense, money spent without going In-World obviously isn’t going to wind up in the revenue traceable to an In-World Store, so it follows that money has been taken away from In-World Merchant’s bottom line.

But the opposing camp replies with the argument that “the money is for Virtual Goods that can only be used in Second Life, so it’s going to wind up In-World anyway.” Again a reasonable statement. Further to the point, a lot of the Merchants that sell In-World are also represented on the primary offline sales sites too, so there is a portion of the sales that wind up in their pockets anyway. After all, money to the bottom line is still money. (A truth that many RL brand-name manufacturers follow when they sell their products to other companies for labeling under a store-brand or generic name.)

However I’m not here today to try and bury this hatchet by pushing you into deciding one way or the other. As I’ve learned over the years, dislodging anyone from a highly emotional point of view is a task best left to immortals and governments … and last time I checked, I am neither. Rather my goal with today’s post is to point out a “Middle Ground” that is as of yet undeveloped, highly beneficial to both parties and, from my perspective, worthy of some development by the Linden Overlords and the rest of us that know how to innovate solutions (which is a fancy way of saying “every Second Life Resident”.)

I’ll Take Two From Column A

Let’s begin the process of staking out this hallowed middle ground by listing the positives of each sales method. If you happen to disagree with one of my points, I ask that you hold off spray-painting my blog until you get to the opposing points and the final conclusion. These are supposed to be points of benefit from one POV or the other and not really “cold hard indisputable facts”.

In-World Sales:

  • Sales go to support Land Tier and Store Rent which supports survival of Second Life
  • Products are visible, touchable and demonstrable thus less prone to fraud or ripoffs
  • Delivery problems are almost nil as the buyer is “right there”

Offline Sales:

  • Shopping can be done from any supported web browser
  • Product information is richer and easier to locate/consume
  • Wider selection of products available in shorter time span

It doesn’t take a furry rocket scientist or a drow queen to realize that Linden Lab has noticed some of these benefits and, in their earnest desire to expand their customer base, has tried to bring some of them together. I think the most obvious example is the much-ballyhooed rumors of a browser-based Viewer for Second Life. They even tried one out and while it had some initial good reviews … it’s kinda gone underground. (In my own immensely humble opinion, they’d be better served wasting time perfecting jiggly noses than working on a browser-based viewer, but what do I know?)

So looking over the above lists of high points, how do we go about creating something that provides all of them while not stealing anything from the “other side”? This is where I pull a sneaky on you … dear Reader … and provide a glimpse of an answer: The solution is Search.

WTH? Search?!?

Yup, I’m serious … and here’s the cherry filling. In-World Search as it stands now is a very thin, frankly anemic text-only listing of the items a Merchant chooses to mark to “Show In Search”. A lot of the issue we are having with In-World Search is that the amount of detail that can be provided on those Parcel Listing pages is very basic stuff. We get the Object Name, its Description and if the object is marked “For Sale” then we also get its price. (Oh yeah, and a location too. Can’t forget the location.)

Now pull up your favorite Offline Virtual Goods Sales Site (that means Marketplace) and look over the listings for any Category or any Merchant … or even your own listings. Look at the richness of the detail provided there. You have a selection of images, text that describes the product in varying degrees of detail, a Features List … and a section for Reviews. However something absolutely vital is (almost) missing. Look close and you’ll probably be able to find a link that takes you to the In-World location that sells that particular item. (Hint: It’s all the way down below the item description, just above the Related Items detail.) Of course it’s only present for those Merchants that have an In-World Store to sell the item from, but hey … isn’t that the point? To get more folks using BOTH In-World and Offline Sales?

Okay, now back to Search. I want you to mentally superimpose a Marketplace Storefront over top an In-World Search Parcel Listing page. Imagine the richly detailed Store Logo at the top, the products organized in groupings based on their Location (or any other sort parameter the Merchant chooses), and each Product with its own selection of images, full description, a place to read and leave Reviews and … for the Grande Finale … a selection of methods to purchase and/or view the item.

The Purchase Process

The two methods of purchasing Virtual Goods have two wildly different methods of purchasing and delivering the products purchased. Of course the offline sales site uses some form of intermediary service (currently “Magic Boxes” but eventually “Direct Delivery”). The reason for this is because you are “Offline” while shopping. Since you aren’t right there at the In-World Vendor, there has to be some other means of transferring the product from the Merchant to you. Of course, the downside to this whole method is that you are often told to “log on before completing your purchase” which pretty much defeats the purpose of being offline, doesn’t it? (Direct Delivery will “fix” this according to the rumors, but hang tight and I’ll explain why this has larger ramifications than just for offline sales.)

When you are In-World and shopping at a specific location, the purchase process depends on the type of Vendor being used. Beginning Merchants (and us old die-hards) use “Sell from a Prim” or “Sell Copy/Contents” type Vendors that use the native functions provided on the Properties page of a Prim. More sophisticated and experienced Merchants tend to use one of the available “Scripted Vendor” systems. These often allow such niceties as “Single-location Stocking” (meaning you put your product in a Server somewhere and all purchases are delivered from it), Sales Transaction Logging, Product Redelivery and Warranty Registration.

Does that list of features in a Scripted Vendor sound familiar? It should. It’s virtually identical to the features provided to Merchants that sell from an Offline Site (like Marketplace). Of course most scripted vendor systems actually provide better reporting and tracking tools, but they totally lack the graphical interface, multiple Merchant searching and offline purchasing capability provided by Marketplace. Is the light bulb starting to glow yet?

Cross an Elephant and a Rhino

So here’s the middle ground in detail. No matter whether you’re In-World or not, you begin your search for a product by going to In-World Search. How you get to the Search interface is not important; you can either launch it from inside your Viewer (if you are logged in to Second Life) or by going to the web address from your browser. The “Virtual Shopping Mall” interface will look a lot like Marketplace does now and it will have presented on it various advertisements and specials paid for by Merchants that want their products placed front and center. (But nothing quite so noisy and garish as Marketplace does now. Sad to say but that much noise and … ahem … crap just puts people off. Seriously they need some human factors engineers to explain why humans don’t pay attention to 100,000 scrollie-rollie-blinkie-flashie things on a single page.)

Somewhere on the page are the various Categories that are present on Marketplace now, but there is also a “Search” box that allows you to enter words that help you locate the product you want to purchase. (The Merchant Name and Store Name options are good too, so they have to stay … somewhere.) You can either drill-down through the Categories or use the Search function to find a selection of products that meet your desires. No matter how you get there though, where you get is a selection of listings that come from Enhanced Parcel Listing pages.

When you set up your Store In-World, you select an option on the Vendor Prim called “List For Sale”. This option allows you to add a selection of Textures, drop in some text that describes the product, specify the price, category and a selection of other attributes that fully describe what you are selling. It also connects the Vendor Prim to the Virtual Sales engine built into the Second Life infrastructure. These details also create a listing on the Enhanced Parcel Listing page that looks a lot like today’s Marketplace listings.

So what happens when someone wants to purchase your products? As with any good idea, the answer is “it depends”. If the buyer is In-World then the Vendor Prim itself is paid (using the typical right-click and buy/pay method) and the product stored inside is transferred to the buyer’s inventory. If the buyer is offline at the time of purchase, the purchase is made by database transfer of the funds from their In-World account balance into the Merchant’s account and then the product stored inside the Vendor Prim is transferred to the buyer’s inventory. (That’s called “Direct Delivery” … but with slightly different stripes.)

Why This Is Better

As you will no doubt notice by now, this solution is a complete blur between the two methods available now. No matter which path you follow to make a purchase, the final process of delivering the product is exactly the same. This simplifies both the design and the operation of the Sales/Delivery machine by eliminating duplicated functions and opposing devices. No matter where a customer makes their purchase, it will still be delivered from the same Vendor Prim.

Furthermore the up-front process of finding, viewing and learning about the products is the same too. In-World you can teleport to a store you know and trust and quickly get a complete overview of every product they sell just by accessing their Enhanced Parcel Listing Page from the In-Viewer browser. If you are offline, you can do the same just by locating the Merchant’s listing page. If you’re not sure who might sell what you want, you either open your web browser or the In-Viewer Browser on the Search page and start looking. Drill down as you wish, wander categories as you wish … click on ads and chase down specials to your heart’s content. It’s all the same products from all the same Merchants and it all takes you to the same Enhanced Parcel Listing Page.

From the Merchant’s perspective, this type of system has numerous advantages. Not only does it remove the duplicated effort involved in setting up both an In-World Store and a Marketplace (Offline) Storefront, but it also provides a standardized and thus improved means of describing and selling their products. By using inherent features of a Vendor Prim (although they are features that do not exist … yet) the actual sale and delivery process is simplified and made more reliable too. Add in the enhanced sales reporting tools, the ability to redeliver products and especially the Customer Review feature, and you have a tool that works like a top of the line Virtual Sales web site inside a 3D Virtual World environment. (Can we say “Win-Win” about now?)

Lest We Forget The Newbies

If you know anything about me, you also know that I’m a big champion of the Newbie Resident/Merchant. I remember well my very first days of building and selling my products. I didn’t have the money to rent store space, so my only avenue was to use SL Exchange. I actually made some sales, nothing great of course but it was still money I didn’t have before. I still firmly support the need to offer the same low-cost and low-fear entry mechanism to upcoming newbie Merchants. They are the future dreamers and stellar builders yet to be discovered, thus we need to encourage them to grow and experiment without having to hock the kids to get started. The method I propose does offer that as well … in a slightly expanded variation.

Typical Entry-Level Merchants have a fairly small selection of items to be sold. I’ll just guesstimate it’s something around 20-50 tops. As it stands now, the new Merchant only needs to find someplace friendly that will loan or rent them space to store a Magic Box. With the upcoming Direct Delivery feature, even that requirement will vanish. They still need to create graphics, type up the product description and edit a listing page on the Marketplace of course, and I don’t envision that requirement going away in the new system I’m proposing. Since the products will eventually be delivered from their Inventory, they will have almost a zero-cost entry point to begin selling.

But here comes the roundhouse … No one actually starts making money until they invest in an In-World Store. Yup, you heard me right, it’s a fact I’ll stake my life on. (However my human reserves the right to renege on that guarantee, stating that Avatar life is easier to forfeit. The bastid!) The point behind the new system is that transferring the effort invested in creating your first offline-only Storefront into your first In-World Store is extremely simplified … or at least should be. You’ve already got the graphics, you’ve got the descriptive text, you’ve got the reviews and sales history. All you need to do is build a prim, link it to the existing listing (on a virtual, non-Parcel based listing page) and voila! You’ve just created your first In-World Vendor. This significantly lowers the barrier to opening an In-World Sales Outlet.

If you never make that leap, them’s the breaks. I fully expect a lot of beginning Merchants to never cross that barrier for a whole host of reasons. But among those reasons should not be the hassle and effort required to open your store. Because the mechanism to sell and deliver your products is already done, and because the enhanced detail needed to describe your product exists, you won’t have to spend a lot of time inventing all new stuff.

Tomorrow’s Road

Precious little of what I propose here exists today. There are on-ramps to most of it, but the real roadway hasn’t been paved yet. Direct Delivery is an exciting start to a good portion of it. Linden Lab’s push toward web-hosted services is another. I know a lot of people think I’m a Luddite most of the time, but I promise you my real reason for bitching so loud is just to make sure they do the job right with careful forethought, and not to stop them from doing it at all. I see a future for Second Life that is firmly rooted in sales of Virtual Goods. Today’s post is my way of offering a lamp to illuminate one path that can lead us there. Maybe with luck we’ll get there before I run out of things to bitch about. *grin*

Visit the DGP4SL Store on SL Marketplace


One Comment on Sales are Sales are Sales

  1. Tinsel Silvera on Tue, 7th Jun 2011 10:55 AM
  2. When I originally came in to Second Life I did all my shopping inworld. I would use search and then teleport and buy. But then search no longer worked and I started using the Marketplace to find products and buy and deliver. Now what I do is use the web search and then teleport to the place and buy.

    As for my business sales – the largest portion now comes from the Marketplace. I am not sure why I even have land inworld anymore. Nostalgia I guess. I am also hanging on to hope that Linden Lab gets a search that works so that my inworld sales increase.

    The new search shows promise. I am watching sales and traffic closely.