December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

The Mood Behind the Merchandise

A sleek model wears an equally sleek white leather handbag, slung just-so over one shoulder. A slim, stainless-steel watch fitted with a blue lizard-skin band pops out against a stark white background. A golden-hued purse, crafted in buttery leather, invites touching.

The words are ours. The pictures belong to Coach.com, whose developers, designers and merchandisers follow a simple directive from the company’s CEO, Lew Frankfort: “Make the product the hero.”

Lighting, color, displays, banners-the many tricks that create a store’s ambience in the brick-and-mortar world-translate to some degree on the Internet. But the modus of conveying mood is vastly different online, starting with the five senses. Electronic storefronts engage sight, to be sure, but only occasionally sound. And so far, touching, smelling or tasting require buying first.

Building ambience around an e-retailer’s wares also is limited by technical factors such as bandwidth and download speeds. These challenges call for a tailored approach, says Arlene Brickner, Coach’s vice president of creative services. That’s why she considers each Web page the equivalent of a display window. “It should give you information about the brand,” she explains, “and cue you about what you will see and feel when you walk in the store.”

Picture perfect

Image quality is the biggest advocate of product quality. That means crisp, clear photography is vital-images so sharp that online shoppers can imagine the feel of the merchandise just by gazing at it. “Since the customer isn’t able to touch the product online, it is very important to show the product the best way we can,” says Brickner. “So we spend a lot of time and effort on product photography itself, making sure it’s lit correctly so you can see detail. Our shots also tend to be larger than those in some Web sites, where you can barely tell what the product is.” Coach also has bumped up the size of its color swatches to help shoppers distinguish between hues such as black and mahogany that can look similar online.

But most shoppers don’t have the latest and greatest equipment for appreciating such differences. In fact, the threat of slow modems, older monitors and graphical differences from computer to computer mean that shoppers either won’t wait for big image files to download or don’t trust what they see if they do wait. In a finding that harks back to the early days of catalog sales, Internet tracking firm Cyber Dialogue says that 60% of consumers don’t trust the colors they see on their monitors.

Companies like E-Color and Xippix have recently entered the online shopping market to help. E-Color, for example, has introduced technology that adjusts for differences in users’ graphic cards, guiding shoppers through setting up a color characterization profile that’s accessed via a cookie each time they return to a particular site. Retailers J. Crew and Bloomingdale’s have deployed E-Color’s system on their sites. And Xippix’s ImagePump lets shoppers zoom in, rotate and navigate their way into image details. Fashion e-retailer StyleClick.com uses the application on its site. Both products work without downloads.

Of course shoppers can’t zoom in for a closer look if they can’t find their way to the right goods. Just as a physical store crammed with racks and displays can annoy shoppers by making the aisles virtually impassable, a clunky, busy or confusing site is a similar turnoff. In fact, a hard-to-navigate site is perhaps an even bigger impediment, since customers still must walk through a brick-and-mortar store to reach the exit but can leave a Web site with a single click.

Coach keeps its site clean and minimalist. Prominent click-points along the top and bottom travel from page to page, taking browsers to new products and customer service sections, as well as the main shopping categories, a quick-order section for those armed with catalog numbers and a gift adviser for shoppers in search of suggestions. Likewise, product tabs on the home page require no guessing games-they’re simply labeled handbags, accessories, business, travel and home.

Bricks-and-mortar retailers going online face a different challenge from pure-play online merchants establishing a presence on the Web, Bricker says. “They’re creating something brand new. We needed to create something to convey the sensibility of our stores, and what Coach already stood for.”

Levi’s snag

But not all e-retailers understand how to create ambience without impeding browsing, searching and buying, according to Harley Manning, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. Early-stage Web retailers sometimes forget they’re in a different medium, Manning says: “The tactics are different. It’s essential to remember that the Web is not just a medium-it’s a tool your customers are using.”

Large images, he contends, aren’t necessarily better. The same dramatic, high-contrast photo that made a great catalog cover can represent a download albatross online. “A small, optimized picture is better,” Manning says.

To make the point, Manning recounts a negative experience when he tried to buy a pair of jeans from Levi Strauss & Co.’s. now-shuttered Web store. Because of the site’s large, mood-setting shots of hip, young models, the download was “tortuously slow, even over my cable modem,” Manning complains. “And I was four levels into the site before I saw any jeans.”

Manning’s shopping trip also was encumbered by a window soliciting contest entries that popped up three times along the way. “It took five or six levels to finally get to relaxed-fit jeans,” he says. “You should have been able to select jeans off the home page. In terms of ambience, they could have been less hip and more considerate of my time. I can’t believe any of the people who designed the site actually placed an order on it. If they had, they would have figured out the problems within 10 minutes.”

Simple vs. sophisticated

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