Point, click, buy anything—from anywhere

October 16, 2007
By: Tim Heston

Say you"re looking to buy a new stainless steel refrigerator, but instead of driving down to your local Sears, you hop online, review your options, customize it, and purchase itdirectly from a factory in rural China. The manufacturer takes your specific requirements and builds a fridge just for you, packs it and ships it to your doorstep, and installs it in your kitchen.

Call it e-commerce-enabled mass customization, gone global.

The idea may seem far-fetched, but it"s not according to an Associated Press piece featuring Chi Tau Robert Lai, chief scientist of the virtual world for the Beijing Cyber Recreation District, or CRD, an online virtual network boasting a range of services, from corporate and cultural exchanges to educational classes, and, yes, e-commerce. The organization presented at last week"s Virtual Worlds Conference & Expo in San Jose, Calif.

Upon first discovering the conference, I admit I did a double take: virtual world? Doesn"t that have something to do with online gaming? Manufacturing is about as real as it gets, so what"s the connection?

I later learned that while the virtual world is, well, virtual and not real in the physical sense, it certainly has real economics. According to a 2002 article in the New Scientist, players for the online fantasy game EverQuest create characters that buy and sell from other characters. Though these are virtual productsproducts that will supposedly give them better positions in this virtual worldthese gamers are willing to pay cold, hard, real cash for them. Transactions go through sites like eBay, where real money changes hands.

EverQuest acts like its own virtual country in a way, and according to New Scientist, a study found that the sum of all EverQuest transactions in a year would place it as the world"s 77th most wealthy country. For a frame of reference, the study pegged Russia at 76.

According to sources, gamers now foster communities that merge more than ever with reality, and many think such virtual-world technology will be the next big thing for e-commercenot a virtual game, but a purchase of a product that has value in the real world.

Take that refrigerator example. Instead of just visiting an online Web site, users would enter a virtual store and, potentially, open and view a virtual stainless steel fridge, choose options to customize it, and then click Buy Now. A delivery person then arrives at the consumer"s front porch with a customized stainless steel beautydirect from China.

Of course, the difficult part happens after consumers click Buy Now. Say sources, this kind of direct interaction with China"s factories may happen someday, but it isn"t just over the horizon. Retail industry consultant Robert Bartlett told the AP, In the long run, the age of technology will allow us to do just-in-time responsive manufacturing based on consumer needsbut the superior customer experience in truth is still in the retail store & People shop online for convenience, and if your shirt isn"t delivered for six weeks because it"s being made in China, what"s the value?

Besides logistical problems, political and economic problems in the real world may hinder global e-commerce in a virtual one. The CRD will be partly government-owned, and that raises eyebrows among observers. A meeting of World Trade Organization countries Monday again pushed sticking points of Chinese trade policy to the footlights. Among other things, the U.S. brought up its concerns about China"s restrictions on the export of raw materials. And then there are the product quality and safety concerns that have gotten their share of media coverage.

Whether or not such e-commerce is even feasible may be a moot point. I feel it speaks volumes as to where the country is, culturally. Now, technology futurists are in a sense saying, You will be able to point, click, and buy anything, just how you want it, directly from any factory in the worldso much for Buy American.

The Beijing Cyber Recreation District is being billed as a so-called online counterpart to Beijing"s China Recreation District, a physical, real-world endeavor that will boast entertainment and shopping; the center is set to open in time for the 2008 Olympics, according to the AP. And where will this new entertainment center be built? In an abandoned Chinese steel plant.

Can"t you just feel the irony?

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314