December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Picture this: E-retailers aim to zoom, spin and model their way to higher sales

Think 3D is a slick toy best suited to video games? Think again. Timebeat.com, an Internet seller of jewelry and watches, last year rendered several products on its site in 3D and offered shoppers a free downloadable plug-in, Cult3D from technology provider Cycore, so they could enable online viewing. Over the next several months, the retailer saw sales of the items rise 15% over when they were viewable only in 2D.

To date, it’s rare for online sellers to tie advanced visualization technology so directly to the bottom line. Most retailers who’ve experimented with enhanced product imaging technology say it’s still difficult to track their success rate with traditional measures like increased sales-or they’re simply not telling.

What’s clear is that an increasing number are testing the waters and investing in rich media tools, which are migrating to retail from games, entertainment and other industry sectors, to pump excitement into even the dullest product categories that may be difficult to sell online. Some 23% of online apparel sellers in a Forrester Research survey last year, for example, say they already used zoom technology; another 55% planned to add it.

And zoom functionality, which provides Web shoppers with closeups that show selected areas of a product in greater detail, is the bottom rung of the ladder when it comes to enhanced online imaging.

3D technology lets users rotate a product image for a 360 degree view. Other new technologies provide similar interactivity, letting users virtually open a laptop case to see how it works, build a virtual model and “try on” clothes, and even move through a 3D environment in a virtual room or landscape.

Getting real

In today’s competitive retail market, these enhanced visualization tech-nologies appear to be proliferating. “Online retailers that sell highly differentiated products are desperately trying to find ways to display the properties of those products on the Internet,” says Ken Cassar, senior retail analyst with Jupiter Communications. While the purchase of replacement or commodity product has become a no-brainer on the Web, consumers remain less willing to buy online what they can’t see or feel first. In fact, 84% of consumers in a Jupiter survey last year said that the need to see, touch or try on certain products would ultimately be a barrier to purchasing a wider range of products online.

A host of technology developers are striving to change that by working with Internet merchants to enhance the way products look on their sites. Among them: The Sharper Image uses Shells Interactive’s 3D Dreams technology to give customers a better look at exclusive products. Internet Pictures Corp.’s IPIX 360 degree visual content technology lets users tour car interiors on Autoweb.com, AutoNation.com and other automotive sales sites. Toysrus.com and babiesrus.com also have acquired the technology to build 3D functionality into their sites. In February, MetaCreations launched a trial run of its streaming 3D technology on J. Crew’s Web site, while the Warner Brothers Online

Store and Styleclick.com already use it on their sites. And 3Dshopping.com not only offers product rotation, zoom closeups and color changes for merchandise featured in its own online mall, but it powers 3D product rotation on Nordstrom’s recently-launched shoe Web site, which uses the same technology.

Benefits beyond sales

Even without a mass of evidence to prove that these enahncements boost sales, retailers say they see other benefits. 3Dshopping’s product image enhancements keep return rates at the online mall at less than 15%, well under average catalog return rates of 25% or more, says Joel Gayner, senior vice president of sales and marketing. The key, he adds, is that enhanced visuals shrinks the gap between customers’ expectations and the delivered reality-a frequent issue with unseen purchases. “When the customer opens the box with a high level of expectation that this is what they thought they purchased, returns go down,” he says.

Several retailers say enhanced visualization increases site “stickiness” and that consumers spend more time on pages where they can play with an image. “When a shopper is on a site that’s only 2D, he or she flips through page after page,” says Jim Madden, president and CEO of the U.S. operating unit of Sweden-based Cycore. “With [3D], people become participants. It engages them. They spend time learning about the product-interacting with it. It builds confidence and trust, and affects consumer psychology very directly.”

Building the brand

Other cited benefits reach deep into the issue of brand image. With personal stories and photos scattered among product shots and information, for example, the Lands’ End catalog has become known as an entertaining read. The company uses virtual modeling technology to extend that same sensibility to its Web site. In November of 1998, Landsend.com launched My Virtual Model online. The 3D technology, developed by Public Technologies Multimedia, lets shoppers key in their own measurements to build a virtual double that can “try on” selected clothes.

“About 450,000 models have been created since we launched, so we know people are using it,” says Jeremy Hauser, research and analysis specialist at Lands’ End. “Right now we’re looking at the application as more of a tool to help customers enjoy the site, to help them mix and match clothes, but less of a sales tool.” However, given the customer response, the virtual model may be well on its way to becoming just that. Working with Public Technologies, Lands’ End plans to roll out improvements later this year to increase the model’s realism, refine fit recommendations and expand clothing items available for trying on. JCPenney last year also added Public Technolgies’ virtual modeling technology to the plus-size section of its Web site.

Growing pains

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