December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Color technology makes the difference as e-retailers fine-tune tints to spike sales

(Page 2 of 3)

“Our technology reads the cookie, which tells us how you see color,” says Peter Bernard, vice president of products and marketing at San Francisco-based E-Color. “So when the server serves up the image of that red sweater, it will actually change some of the color of the image to compensate for the way it knows you’re seeing color. When you’re seeing too much blue on your display, the picture of the sweater will be served to you with a little less blue so it matches what the merchant wants you to see. We’re personalizing color based on how your monitor sees color.”

With a growing crowd of technology and service providers clamoring for e-retailers’ attention, smart web merchants are looking hard at performance metrics before investing with any of them. But with color matching technologies relatively new, there’s little hard data so far to quantify impact, predictive studies aside.

Technology vendors, however, say that though many e-retailers are just beginning to evaluate online color correction, their experience already has turned up at least one surprise. “We’d projected that the overwhelming driver for deployment of this technology on e-retail sites would be product returns caused by colors not meeting customers’ expectations,” says Dave Veilleux, program director of Internet technology at Oakdale, Minn.-based Imation Corp. But in practice, with a half-dozen e-retailers expected to launch Imation’s color correction system on their sites over the next few months, Imation has found something else. “The primary driver,” Veilleux says, “really appears to be that sites are using this technology to differentiate themselves from competitors.”

Don’t be haphazard

While it’s true that early adopters catch the benefit of initial buzz, that wanes as a technology becomes more widespread. The core question that remains then is that of how e-retailers can determine how much-or even if-color correction would drive sales.

For the answer, say analysts, web merchants should first look at their merchandise-color means little when you’re selling CDs, but a lot if you’re selling apparel. Next, Internet sellers must dig deep into their customer profiles to determine whether their sites’ issues are those that specific technologies will resolve. “Haphazard technology integration is not the answer,” says Lydia Loizides, an analyst with New York-based Jupiter Communications. “Say you think color is the be-all and end-all to selling more shoes. But you find on further research that sizing is the problem; you’re selling European shoes and U.S. customers need something that enables them to translate the size differences. Having identified what the problem is, you integrate the technology that fixes it.”

Case in point: Bloomingdales.com, New York. “We evaluate technology in terms of the value it adds to the customer’s experience,” says Susan Harvey, senior vice president and managing director of Bloomingdales.com. “We’re not interested in technology for technology’s sake, as a novelty or just to add a new bell or whistle to the site.”

Under those criteria, Bloomingdales.com looked at but passed on virtual modeling technology and offline color swatching systems-but it chose to offer E-Color correction to site visitors starting with the post-holiday season early this year. Now creeping up on nearly a year’s worth of data, Harvey says Bloomingdales.com will look at the technology’s impact on returns, shop-to-buy conversion rates and the shopping patterns of customers who choose to use the color correction service.

The swimsuit issue

Color is a big part of the sales story at Venus Swimwear of Jacksonville, Fla., which prides itself on its extra-bright swimsuits. “When people see a suit on the beach that’s really colorful and dramatic they tend to think it’s a Venus suit, even if it isn’t,” says Rich Atlas, director of direct and e-commerce marketing. “That recognition is one of our marketing strengths.”

The 18-year-old direct marketer launched a web store in 1999 and until adding E-Color technology last June, used no color correction system. It knew from its catalog experience, however, how tricky color representation could be in a print format, and it understood that the web introduced a whole new set of challenges. “On a print piece, you can pump up the image so it’s crisp and clear. But on the web, you can’t afford to have a big file. The fewer colors you use in making the file the smaller it’s going to be and the shorter the download time-but you don’t want it to be at the expense of accurate color,” says Atlas.

Some 10-12% of Venus’ catalog returns are identifiably related to color issues. “So anything we could do to make sure people are seeing our colors properly on the Internet was worth a test,” Atlas adds. The company expects to look at performance metrics before the launch of the next swimwear season in January. Meanwhile, as an early adopter it pays relatively little for the technology-about $2,000 a month in licensing fees plus a monthly fee based on the amount of provider bandwidth it uses.

Though color correction systems aren’t yet in widespread use among e-retailers, analysts already are looking ahead to figure out the likely winners among color technology vendors. “Right now it’s a race for them to secure partnerships with equipment manufacturers and e-business integrators,” Schubert says. “The problem is that there’s probably only going to be room for one major player. If color correction is to become truly ubiquitous, everyone will have to have monitors calibrated to the same settings. I think e-retailers realize that and there’s some trepidation about being first.”

But others don’t see it as such a VHS/Beta dilemma. “In the technology world, this comes up every time there’s new software,” says Veilleux. “If there are competing companies offering technologies that are similar business propositions, consumers can use either or both until one wins out as the de facto standard.” Under those rules, technology vendors who get the most retail sites to offer color correction to shoppers-and get shoppers to add the cookie to deploy it-will ultimately emerge at the head of the game. Until that happens, e-retailers are trying out many new and better ways to help shoppers see red, blue and yellow-in the hope that they themselves will see green.

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