BUSINESS SPOTLIGHT:

Meet Kip Deshler. He'll show you the hottest travel destinations for a price that won't break the bank.

Or meet Meadow Stevens, who will show you the latest in jewelry.

Or Rico Bolero, who will take you on a tour of the latest high-tech gadgets available.

These assistants are virtual avatars that can be found as part of VivaSwag.com and the latest incarnation of the website, ThatsSoSwag.com.

The sites are the brainchild of Glendale-based Electric Chocolate Inc., Chief Executive Pete Sokoloff, who with the assistance of creative director Carlos Rodriguez and programmer Pablo Bornacin created the sites to offer customers a unique and personalized shopping experience.

One can go to VivaSwag. com and, say, search for shoes. The results page will then list different types of shoes, from running shoes to more formal footwear. Say one is looking for a running shoe. The results page shows that the site has found three shops that sell a brand of running shoe in black and silver, in this case, Reebok. The site then gives visitors the opportunity to compare prices at all three stores that have the shoe in stock. The sites feature 150 merchants.

Or you can ask one of the virtual experts to show you.

Take Rico, for example. Each day in Rico's “Daily Swag” he will show you the latest gadget trends, for example, from heart-rate arm bands to cordless wave keyboards to iPod arm bands. Or one can click on his “Essential Electronics,” where the latest laptops, DVD players, high-definition televisions and digital cameras, among other gear, are featured.

Rico is just one of eight virtual personal assistants on the site.

“Each avatar was created by one of our writers here at Viva Swag,” Rodriguez said. “Basically, they all have backgrounds and personalities that kind of cater to that category.”

For example, Farrah Sterling is a Beverly Hills socialite, and she knows all the hottest trends in accessories. She goes to all the parties, Rodriguez said. She is in the loop of what is going on in fashion.

Other virtual assistants include Takahatchi, who offers the best in bath, beauty and hair; Saige Harmony, who specializes in items for the home; Cleopatra Holmes, who specializes in apparel; and Fredrica Delacroix, who specializes in gourmet food.

The characters also banter back and forth on the site. (“Meadow, why don't you throw yourself off a bridge?” snarls Cleopatra.)

“Each character has their own background and why they're experts in that category,” Rodriguez said. “Every day, our merchandisers hand-select the products. These products, they enter them into our system and they put in balloon comments for the avatars. Basically, the avatars are telling you something funny about the product.”

The avatars also give a more expert and in-depth description of the products and provide coupon codes.

“I always wanted to start some kind of a business utilizing the Internet as a medium,” Sokoloff said. “I use the Internet for doing a lot of market research on business, and I am also a big shopper on the Internet. I've bought everything from a double-oven for the house to washing machines, and all kinds of things.”

Development of Viva Swag began in December and launched the second week in May.

Its sister site, ThatsSo Swag.com, is a real-time, hybrid, Twitter-friendly and product-search application that allows users to search for products and immediately be connected to other people on Twitter tweeting on the latest trends, sales and offers. The site also filters out the tweet spam that is often inherent with Twitter; people will get only real comments about the products they are looking for, Rodriguez said. ThatsSo Swag.com launched three weeks ago. Both sites, Sokoloff said, are aimed at women 18 to 24.

“Right now we see all these social applications going around such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, so we decided we needed to play a part in that,” Bornacin said. “We try to make it simple for people that are in the fashion business or just like fashion.”

Although Viva Swag has some similarities with sites such as Amazon.com in that it points visitors to other sites to buy products, Viva Swag stands out from Amazon because it provides a more fun shopping experience through the use of avatars and personalized shopping, Rodriguez said. Viva Swag offers visitors more detailed descriptions of their products than just a “straight-cut product description, and then you're linked to the other side,” Rodriguez said.

“We just want to do a very good job of serving that 18- to 24-year-old market,” Sokoloff said. “We fully expect to pick up a fair amount of older women and certainly even some men.”


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