Shortly before the holiday season, my wife Kathy and I were driving past a strip mall on our way to a friend's house for dinner. "It won't be too much longer," she said, "before many of these merchants are put out of business because more consumers are shopping on the Internet instead."
  Though I may not share my wife's gloomy forecast for strip malls, the Internet is having a broadening effect on how consumers buy products and services. In fact, immersive online environments, or the "3-D Internet," now host virtual worlds in which so-called avatars (participants' online personas) can shop for fake goods with real dollars, and brick-and-mortar merchants and payments-industry players are starting to get in on the action.
  As Nadia Oehlsen's Emerging Payments story on page 22 points out, virtual worlds such as Second Life are creating a means by which individuals can live out their fantasies as alter egos in hyperspace, and perhaps make a buck doing it as well. In November alone, consumers spent more than $12 million loading value into their Second Life characters and withdrew $1.1 million from them, according to Second Life's creator, Linden Lab of San Francisco.
  In another virtual realm, the Entropia Universe owned by MindArk of Sweden, a person from Miami Beach, Fla., reportedly invested $100,000 to buy an asteroid on which he developed a resort that is generating real revenue from other avatars who stay there. The man is accessing the funds earned from the resort using a Maestro-branded debit card issued by an Ontario, Canada-based bank. Participants in these virtual worlds also exchange funds and products using eBay, though not always in compliance with the rules of their virtual marketplaces.
  Some real-world merchants also staking claims in the virtual world include Sears, IBM, General Motors, American Apparel and Circuit City. American Apparel, for example, which sells real shirts to consumers, pitches matching virtual ones for their Second Life avatar personas.
  I'm wondering if these virtual worlds could use a virtual publishing company that could produce virtual trade publications that charge real dollars to help guide them through the nuances of virtual commerce.
  Nah, that's just fantasy talk.
  Isn't it?
  (c) 2007 Cards&Payments and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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