May 3, 2006, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: Creating product information for online and offline shopping

There’s no doubt that consumers have become hugely more sophisticated in their online shopping. Ten years’ experience buying online and the recent rapid expansion of broadband Internet access have changed consumers’ web shopping. And so it’s not surprising that how online retailers present products has changed. Most consumers and retailers are no longer content with static presentations or linear shopping experiences. Today’s mantra is: However the customer wants to shop.

And that applies to online buying as well as to online shopping and offline buying and any iterations of those. “People buy using the web in different ways than they have in the past,” says Gavin A. Finn, president and CEO of Kaon Interactive Inc., provider of consumer-oriented interactive online technology. “The major change has been how they leverage online and offline channels against each other.”

That change in how consumers and retailers use the Internet has been reflected most distinctly in how product information is presented online-particularly content that is used both online and offline in ways that can assist consumers in shopping and buying both online and offline. Indeed, some technology and solutions providers have built businesses based on that dynamic. “We’re all about helping retailers reach shoppers who want to buy online and/or offline,” says Brian Hand, CEO of ShopLocal LLC, a provider of systems that allow retailers to post their offline catalogs and flyers to their web sites. “We provide services that help communicate what’s going on in product promotions in the store and online.”

Letting the consumer drive

Both Kaon and ShopLocal approach the market from the point of view of allowing retailers to do more with catalogs, flyers and product information.

Gavin notes that Kaon starts by putting the consumer in the driver’s seat. “We create sequences that a consumer can drive rather than have the material in a movie format, which is a passive approach,” he says.

Retailers using Kaon technology can present products in interactive online presentations as well as in interactive PDFs. For consumers, the experience starts with a narrowing down of products. Once they have chosen the product, the fun begins. For lighting sold by Display Supply & Lighting Inc. at DSLGroup.com, for instance, shoppers choose the light fixture, then can make it swivel and turn, change the color of finish and zoom in and out. All happens as quickly as the customer clicks the appropriate button. In some examples, the power cord moves with the light to give a realistic notion of what happens as the lamp itself is manipulated. “The more the customers can participate in the interactive experience the more emotionally connected they become with the buying experience,” Finn says. “It’s all about the consumer playing a role in the process.”

And the process adds a dimension to online merchandising. “The strength is not just in the interactivity, but also in that it allows the retailer to tell a story about the product,” Finn says.

Tapping into the product experts

Kaon creates the online catalogs using a variety of approaches, including technology from Flash and Adobe. In fact, when it created an interactive PDF that allowed consumers to manipulate data in the PDF, download it to their desktops and e-mail it to friends, it discovered an application that even Adobe didn’t know about. “The people at Adobe were quite impressed with what we had developed,” Finn recounts.

Kaon starts catalog presentations by interviewing retailers and manufacturers about the benefits and advantages of products. “We ask them, ‘What do your smartest and most engaging product experts tell you that they show the customers and what their customers are asking for?’” Finn says. In addition, Kaon asks retailers and manufacturers about the key selling features that make shoppers want to buy.

From there, Kaon’s technology creates 3-D models of the products with interactive features built in. Automated processes allow rapid deployment of the technology. “With DS&L;, we built a catalog of 275 products in 64 days,” Finn says.

Kaon also promotes the use of its technology in stores. “Retailers don’t usually carry all products and variations at one time,” Finn says. “But if you can create an experience where all options are available in a way that the customer can see the actual physical appearance, you can inventory all the products you carry.”

How the web supports the brand

ShopLocal also has a store orientation, but in its case, it’s about leveraging offline media online by creating versions of printed flyers and catalogs for use on web sites. ShopLocal does business with dozens of brand-name and local retailers. Its success is a reflection of the maturation of the Internet as well as of Internet users. ShopLocal’s product takes advantage of consumers’ greater understanding of how to use the web-and retailers’ deeper knowledge about the role the web plays in brand positioning. “Five to seven years ago, retailers were concerned that the web would devalue their brand, but it actually supports their brand,” Hand says. “It makes it possible to effectively communicate with shoppers and it provides the platform and the tools to get that identity out.”

Just like Kaon, ShopLocal stresses interactivity and user friendliness. “Shoppers can use a web-type search if they want, they can also flip through the catalog page-by-page and as they roll over products, details pop up,” Hand says. In addition, the online flyer can flag if a product is available only in a store.

Such an approach is key to success, Hand says. “We provide a great platform for the shopper,” he says. “It engages them and encourages them to look around.”

Chicago-based ShopLocal, which is jointly owned by newspaper publishers The Gannett Co. Inc., The Tribune Co. and Knight-Ridder Inc., has created an infrastructure for hosting the flyers on the retailer’s web site as well as at ShopLocal.com. The flyers and catalogs can be created for new clients within three weeks, Hand says. “We did not want to require the retailer to do anything different,” Hand says. “We work with their existing process and we set up a process by which we get access to their data at a specific time to get it ready for the web.”

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