Virtual Emporium is designed to combine the best of two worlds. By Andrew North
We don't want to shop online from home, sitting in front of our computer terminals and clicking on pictures of groceries. Not only is it lonely, it is also slow and tedious, and you never know if someone may be filching your credit card details as you browse. At least that is the view of Tuck Rickards, the man behind a new online shopping venture in California which in Internet terms is fairly revolutionary.

The reason: it is a conventional, walk-in shop on a main street in Santa Monica, one of the wealthiest suburbs of Los Angeles. Admittedly, the shop does have a cyber kind of name, Virtual Emporium, and it looks like an Internet cafe when you first walk in. There are 30 computer terminals around the room and a coffee bar. But unlike in a Net cafe, you can't just breeze in and surf the Net. The terminals are locked on to the Web sites of 80 online retailers around the world that have signed up with Virtual Emporium and which guarantee high standards of credit card security. There is no charge for using the shop. It makes money by charging the retailers a percentage of sales. Gateway 2000 computers, books, Virtual Vineyards, gourmet food suppliers Agora France, Ultimate World travel, Cotton Shirts and even Mercedes-Benz cars are among the companies linked with Virtual Emporium.

Launched this month, the thinking behind the Virtual Emporium is simple, says Mr Rickards. "Most people are still intimidated by the Internet and they still want to go to a fun place to shop. We have combined retail and technology in a way that demystifies the Internet." He boasts that his store offers the "merchandise selection of a 2-million square-foot mall in a 2,500 square-foot neighbourhood store".

The mall concept also informs the organisation of the emporium inside. There are five shopping "environments"- home and kitchen, sports, entertainment and travel, clothing, kids' and seasonal goods - with the terminals in each area preset to the relevant companies.

In a further concession to conventional shopping, a selection of goods are displayed in the shop, such as clothes, kitchen utensils and wine. Mr Rickards denies this undermines the concept of online shopping. "You don't have the choice in the shop that you have online, but the goods on show give you a taster of what is available."

The screen interface on the terminals is based on the Netscape browser, but it has been customised for Virtual Emporium. Features such as a gift picker and a store searcher have been added. All 80 stores make use of Secure Socket Layer (SSL) technology to encrypt outgoing transmissions and protect credit card transactions. To run the whole thing, the Virtual Emporium uses Netscape's Enterprise server on top of a Microsoft Windows NT operating system. A T-1 high-speed connection to the Internet ensures fast response times.

Virtual Emporium, on Santa Monica's trendy Third Street Promenade, competes for attention with fashion shops, bars and bookshops. It is a pedestrian thoroughfare, which guarantees a steady traffic of browsers. But many of those exploring the store in its first few days were Internet novices and showed little desire to buy anything. Mr Rickards says they are still at a learning stage and do not expect to make money for some time. "We have to find out what people want and how to make the experience as enjoyable and intuitive as possible."

More than $1m has been invested in the project so far and Mr Rickards is hoping to expand to other areas of the US. Later this year, they will be opening two "mini online shops" in the student union at the University of California at Los Angeles and at Encino in the San Fernando Valley. His ambitions stretch abroad as well: "I'd like to open a store in the UK," he says, "and in Europe."

But just in case people decide they are quite happy Web-shopping from their home PC, Mr Rickards is covered. A slightly cut-down version of the Virtual Emporium service is available via their Web siten

Virtual Emporium: (