Compared to a movie or video game, virtual merchandise is a bargain

During breaks from caring for her 1-year-old son, Samantha Whipple plays virtual world games on her cellphone. She buys a few outfits for her avatar, spending maybe $30 a month on shoes, jewelry and other virtual merchandise that she'll never hold in her hand. "I'm a stay-at-home mom, so I don't have the time to go out and do all of this stuff," said Whipple, 25, of Fresno, CA.

She also buys salon treatments and gets her nails done with FunCoins she buys on her phone at Cellufun's Web site. "It's a way to do things that you can't do that you want to do," she said.

While it may sound odd to buy such virtual merchandise -- whether farm equipment in the Facebook game Farmville or accessories for an avatar of yourself -- it scratches the same itch as buying a video game for $30 or going to a movie, say industry leaders and players.

It's also a $1 billion market that's only growing and is recession proof, according to Neil Edwards, CEO of Cellufun. "The relative cost that people are spending for virtual goods is less than they would spend on a vice that they have," such as smoking or buying a cup of coffee, Edwards said. Buying a pair of designer shoes at the store will affect your budget, he pointed out, but paying $1 for one of Cellufun's 11,000 pairs of virtual shoes won't put a meaningful dent on the family budget.

Joe Reynolds of Montgomery, Alabama, spends $20 to $40 a month on the online role playing game Runes of Magic. Reynolds, 37, buys gear to enhance his virtual weapons, and sees it as a cheap form of entertainment. "When you compare it to what I would be spending on movies in a month," it's not much money, he said. Reynolds spends six to eight hours a day, and more on weekends, playing the games, which doesn't leave much time for going to the movies, watching TV, mowing the lawn or other endeavors.

"I'm getting the value out of it as far as it being entertainment," he said.