December 29, 2006, 12:00 AM

Behind the curtain

Web technology remixes in new ways that promise to dramatically change the customer experience.

A couple has been searching for a dining room set, a key purchase for their new home. Going to a retailer’s web site, they initiate “co-browsing” of the product page that displays the leading contender, inviting the wife’s sister and the couple’s decorator for a live session during which all parties explore product features, color options and combinations with different chairs simultaneously in a shared, real-time view. With every opinion that counts represented right there in the same session, the couple closes the deal on the spot and the retailer racks up the sale online.

Mainstream retailers are not offering this type of online shopping scenario today, but the ability to do so is closer than one may think-the technology needed to enable such exchanges between shoppers and merchants already exists.

As online retailing moves deeper into its second decade, astute merchants are past launching wow-factor applications simply because they can. Today, potential new shopping applications that rival anything consumers have seen in the online gaming world or on a movie screen are, in effect, waiting in the wings. But those new applications that actually make it onto retailer sites-including, likely in the near future, the one described above-walk a fine line. They must incorporate enough innovation to keep the experience continually fresh, engaging and above all useful to consumers, without moving ahead of consumers’ willingness or ability to accept new shopping tools and patterns.

The shopping tools some retailers will roll out this year walk that line, designers and developers say, in many cases using new combinations of existing technology, and little-used technology now more widely compatible with a new generation of web browsers. “Clients come to us with business problems, such as different target segments they want to go after,” says Chris Gokiert, COO of interactive agency and web design and development firm Critical Mass. “We spend time on what different customers are looking for before we even start to decide what technology we are going to use.”

Online marketing is buzzing about Web 2.0, social networking, AJAX and AJAX-like technologies. How marketers will attempt to capitalize on those trends and utilities over the near term is all about trying to make them pay; in softer benefits such as brand differentiation and direct ones such as increased conversion.

For years marketers have talked about replicating the offline experience online. The new crop of online shopping tools gets even closer to it. Fry Inc. is in development on several concepts that further narrow the gap between how customers shop for clothing in a retail store and how they shop the same category online. For example, to shop an apparel or department store in the bricks-and-mortar world is to walk among the racks, grab a pair of jeans here and a scarf or blouse there, and head for the dressing room with the gathered loot. But online, shoppers are forced to stay within one category at a time.

To free shoppers from having to skip between categories and refresh pages in the course of assembling an outfit, Fry’s concept arranges navigation and product presentation to enable shoppers to move among categories in a continuous scroll format, giving them the ability to view all the products they want across categories in a quicker manner.

Another concept looks to streamline the decision process by giving online shoppers the ability to round up multiple elements of an outfit and drag them visually into a sort of holding pen as they shop. Currently, putting items in the shopping cart is the most common way for online shoppers to save items for later consideration, and adding them to a cart requires shoppers to select a size, color or other specs at that time.

“But adding an item to the cart doesn’t necessarily mean that the shopper is going to purchase it,” says Fry senior strategic analyst Dayna Bateman. “They may add it to their cart, but then they may be going somewhere else to comparison shop. This differentiates the purposes for which users are adding to a cart.” The online feature, with the working name “the rack,” would always be present on the screen as a collection of product images that lets users add, subtract and compare. Additional product detail could appear over each item as shoppers mouse over it in the rack.

“You like this blue shirt and this green sweater. You can just drag them all into the rack, and once you get there you can start making choices. You don’t have to go somewhere else to check price or size or availability because you can do it all from that area,” Bateman says.

Dragging apparel
Another concept in development at Fry addresses the reality that virtual figures or body shapes for trying on clothing online never truly reflect what people really look like. This new concept takes a different approach to online wardrobing, with the goal of depicting color and style combinations interactively rather than attempting to show how a garment would look on a mock-up of the shopper’s figure. It enables users to drag different items of apparel from different categories and arrange them in different ways: for example, dragging a greatly magnified detail such as embroidery on a skirt next to a jacket to see how closely the two colors correspond.

This concept, which goes by the working name of “the outfitter,” uses portable network graphics (PNG) images, which have greater transparency than JPG or GIF images. That enables product image overlays such as a blouse overlapping a skirt. PNG files have been in existence for some time but haven’t been used often in retail applications because they were not supported by most web browsers. However, they’re now supported across the current iterations of Microsoft Internet Explorer as well as backwards-compatible with the last few generations of IE because of the addition of new code.

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