Your friendly local avatar

Avatar on the Sue's Crew Printing website

TEXT OF STORYLISA NAPOLI: We all joke about how one day we're going to be replaced by computers. Many jobs of course already have been. Well, those who work in another sector that should be quaking in their boots are sales clerks. From Chicago Public Radio, here's Mike Rhee:


MIKE RHEE: Andre McReynolds runs a silkscreen t-shirt business out of his home on Chicago's South Side.

He makes the t-shirts in the basement. It's unfinished and a little messy, but people shopping at his online store don't need to know that.

[ AVATAR: "Welcome and thank you for visiting SuesCrewPrinting.com." ]

That's the online salesperson for McReynold's website. These virtual characters, known as avatars, are meant to add a "human" touch to Internet shopping.

McReynolds says he was inspired by another site's avatars.

ANDRE MCREYNOLDS: On that website they were like tour guides and they would tell you to go this page to get this information, go to that page to get that information and then they would send you back to the homepage to make the complete sales pitch and I said, hmmm, that's a very good idea.

Orders from McReynolds's site have spiked up in the last year and a half since he installed the avatar, and his site has gotten stickier, meaning people are spending more time on it and clicking through more pages.

It doesn't stop there.

MCREYNOLDS: To me they're like Internet robots, they don't get tired, they're not human, you know what I'm saying, and they can work 24 hours a day whenever somebody comes to the site.

McReynolds' avatar is an animated, female brunette with emerald green eyes and a pink blouse.He created it using a program from a company called Oddcast, which sells customizable avatars.

President and CEO Adi Sideman says McReynolds' choice of a female is common. Tthey actually convert into better sales.

Sideman's proud of his avatars, and says they're effective because people like to be taken care of. But it'll be a while before avatars are truly lifelike.

ADI SIDEMAN: A real-life salesperson is really smart, they smile, they move around, they grab things, they show you things, and in the end of the day, a virtual salesperson is only a robot. It's only as smart as it's been programmed.

Right now the avatars from Sideman's company are simple cartoons that can be programmed to say canned lines or lines that you supply.

So this isn't the android-filled future just yet. Or is it?

From Chicago, I'm Mike Rhee for Marketplace.

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