February 1, 2007, 12:00 AM

Cleaning up the store with Ajax

(Page 2 of 3)

There`s also the concern that not all of a retailer`s customer base may be ready for Ajax. Ajax works its magic by sharing software processing between the retailer`s web servers and the customer`s web browser. By placing just enough of that processing in the browser--enough to satisfy its "asynchronous" makeup--Ajax enables applications to display content in real time without taking the conventional route of pulling that content completely from a web server. While Ajax applications still pull new data from a web server, such as inventory updates, much of the content to be displayed, including many product images, already is in the browser as a shopper clicks for more content.

With the widespread use of broadband Internet access, most online consumers can take advantage of the software processing that Ajax places in their browsers, then quickly view the content produced by that browser-based software thanks to the enormous processing power in most modern personal computers. But each retailer planning to deploy Ajax should first consider the way its own customers access and use the web, experts say, because many may still be using older machines with relatively slow processing and/or accessing the web through dial-up services that offer only a fraction of the access speed of broadband.

Brand image

Ajax also presents new challenges in monitoring application performance. "Pushing software code literally out to the customer`s _desktop on their browser means it`s not in a network you`re controlling," says Imad Mouline, chief technology officer at web site performance firm Gomez Inc. "If their experience isn`t good, it doesn`t matter if it isn`t your fault, it hurts your brand." Gomez recently launched an on-demand service, Actual Experience XF, designed to test Ajax and similar applications that run in consumers` browsers.

Another concern is making web sites usable by disabled people. Because Ajax refreshes only parts of pages at a time, that can make it difficult for screen-reading tools used by blind and other disabled people, says Mike Deming, lead software engineer at web site development firm Fry Inc. "When building an Ajax-type interaction, you have to design alternative functionality of your web site," he says.

Combined with the newness and complexity of Ajax toolkits, such concerns have led to a slower adoption of Ajax by e-commerce companies compared to other industries, such as financial services and the new business of online social networking, experts say. "E-commerce sites have generally been laggards in Ajax," Schiemann says.

In contrast, social _networking sites have been among the most innovative in recent years in developing new web site designs and applications. And though social networking sites like MySpace.com and YouTube.com don`t compete directly with retailers for product sales, they still pose a major threat in terms of _stealing web traffic from conventional online shopping sites. "The fear of online retailers in 1997 was getting `Amazoned,`" says Joe Chung, founder and CEO of Allurent Inc., which develops Ajax-designed applications for retailers such as Urban Outfitters. "The fear in 2007 is getting `MySpaced.`"

Here it comes

Nonetheless, experts expect more retailers to begin using Ajax soon. "Sometime this year we`ll see a full acceleration of Ajax into retail web sites," predicts Jason Billingsley, vice president of marketing at Elastic Path Software Inc., which sells an Ajax-enabled e-commerce platform used by Coastal Contacts and other retailers.

As it becomes more common on web sites, Ajax can also be expected to become more pervasive throughout enterprise applications. In addition to supporting consumer-facing web pages, Ajax integrates with back-end inventory and other systems as well as image databases, so not only can customers see more product images faster on pages, customer service agents can view inventory levels along with customer _purchasing records.

Rampage Clothing Co., which wholesales women`s fashion apparel and accessories through department stores, recently redesigned its consumer-facing e-commerce site, Rampage.com, to offer a level of service designed not to disappoint its department store customers.

In addition to the ability to mouse over product listings or images to instantly view more details and images, Rampage.com offers an outfit builder that lets shoppers click any of hundreds of products to make them appear in a "fitting room" section, or virtual closet, then click and drag items from the fitting room into a larger "dressing room" area to mix and match tops, bottoms, footwear and accessories to create outfits. Shoppers using the outfit builder first select products from a list that lets them drill down by category.

In addition to dragging items into the dressing room and arranging them as outfits, shoppers can click to make one item appear either on top of or below another item. So a blouse can be made to appear either tucked in or left out, or a pair of boots can be displayed either in front or in back of a pair of pants. "We couldn`t do anything like this without Ajax," says Francheska Anderson, who has served as Rampage`s director of e-commerce since 1999.

Because Ajax is used to integrate the product listings and images with back-end inventory and sales records, shoppers see the real-time status of each item`s inventory availability in an instant pop-up window when selecting an item.

Rampage went live with its current site design in the middle of 2004. The combination of _making the Rampage site interactive and easy to shop while allowing customers to check on cart contents while continuing to shop, Anderson says, boosted sales by about 30% in the first year of the redesign. She and Steven Laff, president of Rampage`s site development firm, A Far Site Better, attribute much of that increase to a sharply reduced cart abandonment rate. "Shoppers completed checkouts seven times more often on the new site compared to the old site because they felt more confident that what went into their cart was what they wanted," Laff says.

Customer relations focus

Ajax`s ability to integrate with multiple databases and quickly show detailed updates can also serve a key component of a customer-service focused strategy. Coastal Contacts, for example, has used Ajax to integrate its customer relationship management system with other enterprise applications on its Elastic Path platform, enabling it to use the CRM application`s records of customer data as the source for running personalized marketing campaigns and online promotions.

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