December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

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

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Industry watchers also don’t discount the value of new products enhancing visualization as a media garnering tool. “At least for the time being, there’s a PR bonus for retailers in some of this gee-whiz technology,” says Scott Silverman, vice president of Internet retailing at the National Retail Federation, Washington. “If you’re doing something unique and it’s a first, there will be media that find it interesting. And if you’re trying to build an Internet brand, that can be useful. Some of these imaging technologies are ahead of their time, but consumers will grow into some of them as they get more accustomed to shopping online and using these applications.”

Early retail adopters may even be gaining extra benefits by being ahead of the curve, adds Jupiter Communications Web technologies analyst Billy Pidgeon. “What retailers get now is a way to differentiate themselves from others by giving customers a new experience that is different from other sites,” he says.

But like any emerging technology, enhanced visualization must find common ground between what’s technically possible and what’s practical for mainstream audiences. Two big challenges to widespread use of product rotation are that accessing the technology often requires a download, and many home shoppers don’t have high-speed Internet access, which greatly improves the quality and operability of the technology.

Industry sources say dial-up access is likely to remain the standard for home shopping for a few years to come (see “The Need for Speed,” April 2000). Jupiter estimates that only a quarter of consumers will have high-speed broadband access by 2003. And without high-speed connections, “A lot of consumers don’t have the patience to download plug-ins,” said one analyst.

Technology providers are only too aware of potential glitches with the user interface and aim for a download that’s as seamless as possible. That is, users should be able to click, download and install the plug-in in a few minutes without having to shut down their browser or close out all open windows.

That’s the intention, but the execution can be another matter, particularly given different equipment and connections among users and the expected wave of less tech-savvy shoppers to coming online. Error messages, lengthy downloads and plug-ins that should work but don’t may result from issues at the individual user’s end, beyond the technology provider’s control-but all shoppers know is that they’re frustrated and have a reason to bail out.

Solutions

That’s why online home furnishings retailer GoodHome.com chose to offer advanced imaging technology for decorating on a CD-ROM rather than as a plug-in. Site visitors can swap out computer-rendered upholstery fabrics on selected products through GoodHome’s proprietary iDecorate technology, which doesn’t require a plug-in, and the site will shortly add zoom functionality. 3D and more sophisticated options for manip-ulating virtual rooms, however, are left to the disk.

“A lot of our team comes from the tech side,” says corporate communications manager Adrienne Hankin of the site, which launched last September. “One of the first things we realized when converting applications to the Internet was that the minute we added a plug-in to the site, a good percentage of potential customers went away because they didn’t understand it. Anything that doesn’t go perfectly is a reason for customers to leave the site. And they might not come back.”

Public Technologies Multimedia’s My Virtual Model and 3D Shopping’s visualization technology also don’t use plug-ins “It doesn’t require a plug-in or a particular modem speed, but users do need to have a browser that’s level 3.0 and above,” says Hauser of Lands’ End’s My Virtual Model. “Our statistics say that’s more than 90% of our customer base now.”

Another approach to minimizing plug-in difficulties among users involves taking advantage of plug-ins users already have. Macromedia’s Shockwave and Flash are two of most common plug-ins for enabling enhanced online visualization. The Shockwave Player, required to view 3D on sites including Sharper Image, Palm Computer and Timex.com, provides interactive product simulations. The Flash player, used on the Web sites of Tiffany, Volkswagen and others, provides animation and other features.

Together, they’ve had hundreds of millions of downloads. They also arrive already bundled into ISPs and new or upgraded browsers under agreements Macromedia has with original equipment manufacturers-a strategy other advanced imaging technology providers also are beginning to pursue. “Macromedia has really been one of the leaders in OEM packaging and distribution of plug-ins. “If your browser doesn’t support it, it’s definitely time for an upgrade,” says Pidgeon.

Online retailers have found yet another way around the problem of widely varied system capabilities and connection speeds at the user end by offering two different viewing options. Online fashion retailer Boo.com greets visitors with a window that automatically tests the user’s connection speed and then advises the choice of either “full mode” viewing, which enables 3D imaging, or “simple mode,” which doesn’t. Users with less than a 56K modem connection can choose the 3D option, but are warned that viewing will be slower.

Making choices

To 3D or not to 3D? That is the question among Internet merchants still standing on the sidelines. Rendering product images for these features can add considerably to the cost of displaying them online.

As enhanced imaging spreads into e-retailing and implementation becomes increasingly easy for shoppers, consultants, technology providers and retailers who’ve pioneered the applications have advice to share with those still making up their minds. Among the key questions online sellers need to answer in deciding whether or how much to boost viewing functionality:

-Are some or all products candidates? It’s one thing to render a few key products for 3D or zoom-or even many more for specialty sites like apparel sellers-but costs will soar if you’ve got massive numbers of SKUs. “The online medium parallels the challenges of displaying merchandise in the real world,” says 3Dshopping’s Gayner. “You can showcase your high-profile items in 3D and present the meat and potatoes of the line in 2D.”

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