March 4, 2004, 12:00 AM

The Big Production

(Page 3 of 4)

It was in part competitive considerations that got Restoration Hardware e-commerce director Stephanie Garcia interested in using rich media on RestorationHardware.com. The web site of the home accent and hardware retailer already was using dynamic imaging technology from provider Scene7 to power a feature that lets online shoppers view different fabric samples on its upholstered furniture when it went live with a Flash-powered online catalog in late December.

“Our competitors are starting to offer this functionality and we want to remain competitive,” Garcia says. Scene7 hosts the online catalog and handles targeting the items on each digital page, to ensure each product shown on a catalog page is linked to the right product detail page.

With just a few weeks of data, the online catalog is producing conversions at a rate double those among web site visitors who don’t use the catalog feature. While Garcia grants the online catalog users at this early stage represent a very small pool of shoppers, the conversion rate has been so strong that Restoration Hardware will seek to increase that pool by promoting the feature more actively.

Garcia plans an e-mail A/B test that will promote the catalog and offer some customers a link and others no link. At some point this year, she envisions using paper catalog real estate to promote the online catalog as well as other web features.

While Garcia won’t reveal data on percentage of customers who reach RestorationHardware.com by high-speed versus low-speed connections, she didn’t let concerns about the longer catalog loading time for customers on dial-up hold her back from using rich media on the site. If the issue should surface, she will work through a solution with the IT department, she says. “Web shoppers come in through a variety of means-MACs, PCs, modems and T1 lines. It’s hard to control that. If we didn’t move forward and not worry so much that one customer might not be able to see, we really wouldn’t be able to do a lot. There will always be somebody who has an issue with seeing or using part of the site. That’s just part of the web now,” she says.

Bandwidth for serving up its new online catalog was a concern when men’s apparel retailer Jos. A. Bank Clothiers Inc. went live with its first online catalog last year, but with the decision to host the catalog outside, speed hasn’t proven to be an issue, says Pete Zophy, divisional vice-president of e-commerce. RichFX hosts the Flash-powered catalog and formats the digital catalog pages supplied by Bank for proper online delivery.

But how about different connection speeds at the user end? “On dial-up it is slower, but not so slow you can’t use it,” says Zophy. “This was a fairly low-risk way to introduce rich media to our site. As long as connection speeds aren’t inconvenient for consumers, and as long as it enhances the consumer experience, you are going to see more and more of this. And it really does enhance the consumer experience because it’s a better presentation.”

The low-risk approach

The online catalog is a replica of Bank’s paper catalog that allows viewers to flip through its pages. Added functionality from RichFX allows online shoppers to select a close-up view providing greater product detail, thumbnails that show multiple page views on one screen or page views whose size falls in between.

While Zophy has yet to compile data on the length of time online catalog users stay on the site versus those who don’t use it, he speculates that catalog shoppers stay longer and that it’s a factor in higher average sales among this group. “These customers are probably spending more time shopping and flipping pages. They are just spending more time browsing, and it might be easier for them to find merchandise through the online catalog so they are adding more to their carts,” he says.

The online catalog has already delivered a positive ROI, producing order sizes on average up to 50% higher than those coming from traditional search and navigation on the site. And that’s with fewer than 10% of site visitors having used the online catalog. “That’s an upside, considering that we haven’t really promoted it heavily yet,” he says. “Our customers are a little more conservative, but they are accepting this Flash version of our online catalog.”

Hearing is believing

Few things can sell music like the ability to listen before buying, making rich media audio streams a top online sales tool for CDs. Buy.com-beyond the audio sampling offered on its music download sister site, Buymusic.com-offers audio samples of approximately 4 million individual CD tracks. While it makes intuitive sense that audio previews help sell, Doug Marrs, vice president of entertainment at Buy.com, also has data to prove it. “We have offered previews of tracks on some titles and then not offered previews on the same tracks for different periods of time. We have seen a three to four times improvement in sales for those items when there are tracks listed for preview,” he says.

The audio samples, averaging about 30 seconds each, are offered in both Windows Media and Real Media formats, two readily available plug-ins. “One of the criticisms early on was that we were forcing people to choose between players to hear the samples. So we opened it up to let customers pick their format,” says

The samples are from albums that represent about 70% of the 125,000 CD titles in Buy.com’s active catalog. Marrs says rights issues are one reason Buy doesn’t offer audio samples on every title; the Beatles, for instance, don’t make their catalog available for preview or download sale on the Internet. Another reason is the expense associated with encoding the files for online delivery. “It’s very labor-intensive and we’d rather outsource than try to do in-house,” says Marrs. Providers Loudeye Corp., based in Seattle, and Muze Inc., in New York City, do the encoding, as well as host the audio streams.

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