PopSugar Launches Retail Therapy, A FarmVille For Shopaholics [Video]

Sugar Inc., the media company behind the popular collection of sugar-centric blogs (PopSugar, FabSugar, BellaSugar), is now dipping its well manicured toe into virtual gaming with the launch of PopSugar’s Retail Therapy. As the name suggests, this Facebook app aims to be the FarmVille of shopping.

After a quiet, soft launch last week, the site has grown from 50 users to nearly 4,000, says Sugar’s founder and CEO, Brian Sugar.

That’s a far cry from the tens of millions of users who diligently fertilize crops on Farmville’s acres, but PopSugar’s Retail Therapy has potential. The game has the power and eyeballs of Sugar’s network at its disposal (the consortium averages 16 million uniques per month) and Retail Therapy has already forged partnerships with several high-profile fashion labels, including Diane Von Furstenberg, Gap, Barneys New York, Juicy Couture, Tory Burch and TopShop.

The basic format of the game is simple.

Each user owns and manages a boutique and builds the store from the bottom up. When a user signs up, she receives $2,500 in coins (and yes, it is always a she— in the world of Retail Therapy there are no male avatars available). She can then use that money for virtual clothing, to design the boutique with furnishings and to purchase inventory for the store. The user selects inventory from a catalog of virtual goods which are actually replicas of real life, in-season products from the retail partners (the ultimate product placement).

That inventory, Sugar says, will be refreshed frequently to reflect any real world changes.

Once a user has retrieved and unpacked inventory, computer generated avatars intermittently shuffle into the store to peruse and purchase goods. Facebook friends on Retail Therapy can also visit and make purchases or sign up to be your store’s sales representatives (anyone can simultaneously manage a boutique and work for a friend’s store). With every purchase you earn new coins and for various actions (like ordering inventory, unpacking it, etc. ), you also earn experience points which will help you access new levels. With each new level— there are currently more than 40— you unlock new products for purchase. Furthermore, if you want to get additional coins for Retail Therapy, you also have the option to purchase them through Facebook Credits.

Fundamentally, Retail Therapy is not radically different from rival Facebook games like Fashion World and Mall World, but PopSugar’s version is the best at bridging virtual and real world shopping. In the game, avatars can explore virtual TopShop and Diane Von Furstenberg stores, get additional information on those real world products and find links to make actual purchases.

Although Facebook Credits is an obvious revenue stream, the game’s real worth could ultimately lie in these retail partnerships. Depending on the evolution of these partnerships and the site’s success, major vendors may be willing to sign lucrative contracts in exchange  for creative marketing opportunities.

Sugar says he’s concentrating on building out the user base for now but he would like to explore new retail opportunities, like offering loyal customers discounts at their favorite retailers or special in-house sample sales. As the business strategy develops organically, Sugar says he will also definitely create a high level of integration with Sugar’s various websites, through cross-promotion and the creation of special events built around editorial content. For example, during Oscars coverage, PopSugar might promote a limited supply of Red Carpet items on Retail Therapy.

For all its potential, Retail Therapy has significant challenges. From a current base of 4,000, the site will need to number in the millions in order to matter in this market. Mall World has more than 4 million active users, Fashion World has more than 2 million. Unlike other virtual world gaming services, like Zynga or IMVU, Sugar is also walking in foreign territory. The network has built a business on creating influential blogs, not viral Facebook games. Sugar acknowledges that they will have to build out their current team, with additional game managers,  to establish a sufficient support network for Retail Therapy.

“We have a pretty great blogging platform that hundreds of thousands of people use and we have… community managers that help those out…We’re going to have to rapidly follow that model here because of the rate of adoption of people using it and people talking about various different issues and problems that they have.  We’re going to have to offer that level of support. I think we knew we had to do, but we didn’t think we had to do it so quickly,” Sugar says.

Update: TechCrunch readers who sign up, can get an extra $2,500 coins through this link.