December 29, 2006, 12:00 AM

Behind the curtain

(Page 2 of 3)

Other versions of the concept incorporate the community aspect that is a hallmark of Web 2.0 development by enabling one shopper to invite others, by means such as e-mail or instant message, to a co-browsing session. In the session all invited shoppers can interact with the same products and features from their respective browsers. They could even potentially tag the outfits created in the session and save them online to help populate others’ search results. The concept builds on co-browsing functionality developed for use by online agents at customer contact centers by pushing it into the peer-to-peer realm.

Some versions of these concepts-and others-are only months away from deployment on retail sites, according to Fry. “The retailers we are presenting the concepts to are really seeing the benefit in better reflecting the in-store experience that guides users in their purchase process,” Bateman says.

Though AJAX, short for asynchronous Javascript and XML, has been making headlines in industry news recently, the technology has been around for years. Now, the rise of broadband, better browser capability and other factors are pushing it into wider use among application developers.

The technology and others like it don’t require an entire web page to be reloaded each time a user makes a change. This speeds up the display at the consumer interface and opens up more creative possibilities for web application developers. One result is that online shopping can potentially be made into a much more immersive experience. But here, retailers must gauge how much shoppers are ready to accept and what would actually help shopping.

“If every online experience were like Second Life, I am sure people would be bailing out of the experience right away,” says Gokiert, referring to the increasingly popular multi-player virtual world where people interact, play, do business and otherwise communicate online.

Pared down
Gokiert, however, already sees online retail moving toward a pared-down version of these complex virtual worlds in some of the rich media applications going up on sites that make shoppers feel as though they are interacting with a person rather than a feature set. For instance, Critical Mass built the online avatars, dubbed “learn mores,” that help guide shoppers through the computer configuration process at Dell.com, and also has worked on developing them for other companies.

On content-rich sites such as Dell’s, the avatars can target customers less inclined to dig out deep content themselves. “It puts the information in plain English, in a conversational manner, and there’s animation that goes with it. So users are more engaged because they have someone ‘talking’ to them,” Gokiert says.

The avatars are just one aspect of a larger trend in retail web design that seeks to deliver ever richer, faster online shopping experiences. A newer build on that is that shoppers now also want to compare and share opinions about that product with others online, a phenomenon Gokiert calls the “community and experts” trend.

Gokiert’s team is working for a number of clients on developing applications that pull third-party product reviews from the web universe onto the retailer’s site via data feeds and content licensing agreements, where needed. Gokiert sees the seed of future iterations of such shopping applications in sites like Rottentomatoes.com, which compiles film reviews from multiple sources and summarizes that aggregated content in its “Tomatometer.”

“It’s not that Rotten Tomatoes is saying it’s the expert, but it’s providing a forum. More and more you see this idea that you can aggregate content, bring it in, and say that this is what everybody else is saying,” he notes. “You used to have this experience by going to a community forum as a destination, but now companies are bringing the community onto their sites and slapping it right into their buying experience.”

Development and design firms and interactive agencies across the board are using AJAX and like technology to develop a range of similar tools that enrich the shopping experience, improve product visualization, and give shoppers greater ability to interact with the site and with each other within the shopping experience. Aquantive’s Avenue A/Razorfish is one of them, and it’s also using the technology to develop a shopping tool specifically for one of retail’s most sought-after customer segments: the power shopper.

A retailer client in the cooking category that noticed a number of its customers were buying frequently and in high multiples realized that professional chefs also were buying on its site. But unlike the home cook, a consumer more likely to be romanced into buying a product by beauty shots or lifestyle content, these power shoppers already know the value proposition of what they are buying, want to buy it quickly, and get out. “They may be restocking and need to place an order for seven to 10 items, in multiple quantities, and they need to do that in an efficient process,” says Garrick Schmitt, head of user experience at Avenue A/Razorfish.

Power shoppers
Schmitt and his team are working with Microsoft’s rich media Internet application platform to build a tool that lets power shoppers select multiple categories, slide volume up or down, and see pricing and shipping information in real time without having to refresh the browser. “We are leveraging our work on the b2b side in terms of a procurement tool and looking at how that applies to the consumer space,” Schmitt says. “You can see where this exists across other customer segments where power shoppers are hamstrung by the traditional product catalog. We’re looking at ways to blow that open and make it much more efficient for the professional. There is a real desire to look at that high-value segment of the marketplace in a new way.”

E-commerce platform developer MarketLive Inc. is focused on a particular aspect of the tools, technology and trends that are providing a base for building the e-commerce sites of the future: how to make any of it pay off for the retailer in terms of its direct effect on merchandising. So among the tools queuing up for potential development on its platform for retailer use are two concepts that seek to do just that, including a merchandized social networks toolkit and a concept currently going by the working name of one-click cloning.

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