Modern retail theory states that the future of shopping is in entertainment.
For those whose idea of entertainment is shopping on the wild side of town without getting mugged, surfing down Fortune City could be just what they've been waiting for.
Fortune City came online at the end of October, offering what SDI managing director and chief architect Richard Jones claims are 100 "best of breed" products mainly from UK software companies, including games, CD-ROM titles and business packages. The twist to the site is the high-quality interface which invites visitors to navigate around Fortune City like extras in a 1940s film noir thriller. The "set" includes opportunities to visit a casino (to buy games software), a cinema (for CD-ROM titles), a police station (for security products) and Smokey Joe's speakeasy (for music packages).
First-time visitors are greeted by Loretta Fiorelli, Smokey Joe's sultry chanteuse, and Sam Spade, private dick, hired to find the killer of Loretta's husband. To get with the script - Fortune City's interface is an online novel written by US author Sandy Newman - you can volunteer to be a witness by leaving your name, address and credit card number with Sam. Registered "citizens" of Fortune City can "hire" Sam to be their very own software agent and he'll guide them around the backstreets to find the products they want. When they've found them, Sam will arrange to have them delivered or citizens can download them directly.
Parts of Fortune City may strike the visitor as a little corny but it's a more entertaining way of shopping for software than going to Dixons and, like all live cities, it's open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The film noir design works well and, because it is largely monochrome, doesn't make the visitor waste hours downloading overdone graphics. Indeed, production values are high. Jones hired top freelance designers to build the site and the cartoon characters of Loretta and Sam are rendered by film professionals Cartoon City. The decision to hire a profesional thriller writer has paid off, too. The script, which combines user information with Chandleresque bon mots worthy of Bogey himself, is readable and entertaining.
The site is an example of how well-composed text can work at least as well as graphics and aid navigation by reducing download time for graphics - navigating Fortune City is easier than Lakeside Thurrock and much more entertaining than other cyber-malls.
The problem for SDI, as for all Web publishers, will be attracting visitors to the site in the first place. SDI's angle is to combine Fortune City with Fortune Teller, a paper-based magazine which carries news based on the fictional characters who populate Fortune City's cyberspace, plus reviews of all the products available on the site. The first issue of Fortune Teller will be mailed to 50,000 known PC and modem owners.
Fortune City suppliers will have to pay rent to SDI plus a percentage of every transaction. In return, SDI will design and build an appropriate Fortune City address and provide highly secure point-of-sale logistics using Netscape's Commerce Server, backed up by 128-bit key encryption from Apache.
If it can attract the right consumer audience, Fortune City should prove popular with other suppliers outside the computer industry. It ought to be especially attractive to smaller suppliers, and to businesses which wouldn't be seen dead in a bricks and mortar Arndale Centre and see no reason to lower their imaginative sights just to go online.
Software Direct International
Launched September 1996
Designed by Freelance designers with Cartoon City
Target audience Consumers
Setup Compaq server, running BSD Unix and Netscape Commerce server
Setup cost #35,000 including design
Running cost #15,000 per annum
Hits per day Unknown as yet.
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