MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: It's time now for our weekly technology segment, "All Tech Considered." Last week, we talked webcams. This week, last minute holiday tech shopping. Joining me now, as always, is our tech expert, Omar Gallaga. Welcome back, Omar.

Mr. OMAR GALLAGA (Technology Reporter, Austin American-Statesman): Hi, Michele. Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: Did you come bearing gifts today?

Mr. GALLAGA: I do. I've got a few gift ideas designed to stretch your dollars this holiday season. This is not the year for the latest and greatest and highest price. I think this year people are thinking a little bit more modest.

NORRIS: Oh, I look forward to that. But first, we've got something else for our listeners. If you don't want to risk a line at your local mall, or you just can't stand the elevator music, there's hope. It's the next phase of online shopping, the virtual mall. Several new companies are trying to replicate the experience of shopping at your favorite mall online, complete with store fronts and escalators. You can browse from store to store. You can compare prices. You can do all this without leaving home. And we asked Chana Joffe-Walt from member station KPLU to try this out. So, she sat down, she created an avatar - that's a character who will do all the shopping for you - and she got busy browsing.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: I am a sturdy, ebony-skinned man with a pink Afro. I'm at the mall on my computer. OK, here. I move forward. Macy's is ahead of me at the end of this aisle, assaulting my eyes with video ads. There's a Hot Topic, Vitamin World. OK, I've got to mute this. I'm not fond of malls, real malls. I hate the lighting. I hate the music. I'm actually a really bad person to explore this virtual mall with you.

Mr. BEN SHACK(ph) (Student; Nordstrom Employee): Every time I think about just, like, going out and shopping, it's just, like, it's so exciting because it's so, like - I love, like, just every single aspect, so.

JOFFE-WALT: This guy, though, he's perfect to test ride virtual mall shopping. Ben Schack, 22-year-old student, Nordstrom employee, fashionista. I sit him down with Virtual E Shopping to see if the joy translates.

Mr. SCHACK: Woo!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHACK: OK. Where are we going?

JOFFE-WALT: So the way that you move yourself around is with these arrows.

Mr. SCHACK: OK. OK, let's go. Wow. Was that Overstop.com? I see the O. Oh there's a Fossil. Oh, there's an Apple store too. Oh, cool. Oh, there's a PacSun.

JOFFE-WALT: Right now, you walk through the virtual mall and you see the store facades. And when you click on them, it just takes you to the store's regular old Web site. But Mark Stein, Virtual E Shopping's founder, says eventually you'll be able to go inside the stores and browse, walk your avatar through Target with a shopping cart.

Mr. MARK STEIN (Founder, Virtual E Shopping): And put items in your shopping cart. You can pick them up, look at them, pay for them with a credit card, and either have them delivered to you or pick them up from your local Target.

JOFFE-WALT: Ben Schack is Virtual E Shopping's target demographic - young, social, and into shopping. And as you heard, he squeals through his first 20 minutes in the virtual mall. But then something happens, something that never happens when Ben is shopping. He gets bored.

Mr. SCHACK: Yeah. I mean, it's fun. I mean, it's just like - I don't know. It's just like - I wouldn't use this for my shopping. If you want to go to Macy's and you want to go to Macy's online, you just go to Macys.com or Saks.com. You know, you don't need a virtual mall to take you there.

JOFFE-WALT: Kenneth Cassar has an idea about this. He's with Nielsen Research.

Mr. KENNETH CASSAR (Director of Strategic Analysis, Nielsen Research): The online shopper today is largely seeking a functional experience.

JOFFE-WALT: Cassar says when we're online, we care about convenience. More than pretty window displays, more than price even, people want quick, simple, easy.

Mr. CASSAR: Virtual shopping environments presume that consumers want to have fun with it. I question, though, whether there's a large critical mass of consumers that will move in that direction.

JOFFE-WALT: But Cassar does add this thought I'll leave you with now. He says 50, 60 years ago, many people looked at all those new physical malls popping up and said the following. Nobody's going to want to drive out of a town center to shop inside a big, enclosed space. That's crazy. For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt.

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