So animated, they're virtually there

Les Beans Coffee's online store avatar greets visitors on the site's main page.

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Tess Vigeland: So there's this clothing retailer.
I love their jeans and T-shirts. Good fit, decent prices. I use to go into their stores all the time -- until I got sick of being accosted every two minutes with a different salesperson chirping, "Can I help you find something?"

It got so bad, I started ordering everything online. But I still may not be safe.
Internet businesses are trying anything and everything to market to their customers.
The latest method: virtual salespeople. Chicago Public Radio's Mike Rhee reports.


Mike Rhee: Avatars are nothing new. The word actually comes from Sanskrit. It's for a deity that's taken on a human form. But in the world of the Internet, avatars are humans who've taken on a digital form.

People have been using avatars for years to represent themselves on the Web. Now, companies are starting to catch on.

Mon Ami Zoe Avatar: Bonjour, I am Mon Ami Zoe.

That's an avatar for a coffee website called Les Beans Coffee. Patti Lucia is the co-owner, and says the characters she creates represent the different blends of coffee her company sells.

Patti Lucia: Mostly, it adds personality to the website, and I think that people can connect to that.

Lucia says the characters keep her website fresh. She gives each character a special touch, and even thinks up their origins and back stories.

Lucia: We really wanted to create sexy, quirky, smart, powerful women characters. So, you can you can choose eye color, size of the nose, and their jewelry or their sunglasses and things like that.

Leo Irakliotis: This is marketing on a different level, but is the same principles.

Leo Irakliotis teaches computer science at the University of Chicago. He says avatar salespeople cater to basic human needs, just like regular salespeople. So interactivity, politeness, even sex appeal can play a factor in how effective avatars can be.

Irakliotis says younger people who are used to video games and computer-animated movies are especially primed for online salespeople.

Leo Irakliotis: Rather than reading a paragraph or two on a computer screen or on a brochure, they may want to hear it from a talking head on their computers.

Meantime, Irakliotis says it'll be a while before avatars can compete with the real thing.

Irakliotis: The avatar cannot improvise, cannot answer questions. And after a while, the novelty wears off.

Some market research shows avatars can help sales, but the data's limited.
Still, bigger companies have taken notice.

Kraft Foods recently dipped its toe in some virtual waters by promoting its products in the online community Second Life. In Second Life, avatars walk around the virtual world and do every day things -- meet friends, go dancing or shop. Kraft has put its products in a virtual grocery store. There's even samples -- except you can't really taste them.

Lisa Gibbons, a Kraft spokesperson, says Kraft is working on letting the avatars give consumers visual cues about how things taste.

Lisa Gibbons: Maybe, say, you taste a slice of pizza and its spicy, that maybe it'll, you know, have a little hot pepper that flashes up, or another way to kinda cue the consumer on what that really tastes like.

Only time will tell if consumers bite.

In Chicago, I'm Mike Rhee for Marketplace Money.

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