March 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

Picture this

Dynamic product imagery is shrinking the gap 
between online and offline shopping experiences.

Buydig.com has a specific objective in mind when making decisions about how to merchandise products: the consumer electronics e-retailer wants shoppers to have all information they need to make a purchase decision in one click.

That thinking drove a decision early this year to add interactive product tours containing video, animation and other rich media content from vendor SellPoint Inc. (formerly Tentoe Inc.) to the site. “People online always are looking for as close to a hands-on experience as they can get,” says director of marketing Jack Baum. “The tours take our product description up to the next level.”

What’s true of shoppers at Buydig.com is true of online shoppers everywhere: when they can’t see or handle a product first-hand, they want the next best thing. “Our goal is the closest we can come to putting all the data and information and experience in their hands,” Baum says.

There’s no shortage of new product display technology designed to decrease the gap between how customers experience a product online vs. in-store. In the relatively short period of the last 10 years, basics such as the ability to zoom in on a product image have become mainstream in how e-retailers merchandise products. Now retailers and technology developers are building on that base. The new generation of tools for visual online merchandising is more dynamic, more detail-rich, more interactive and in many cases just plain more fun for the consumer.

A bit more soul
“A lot of sites were able to compare products, but now they’ve added color to it. Or if they had customer reviews, they’ve added video to them,” says Lauren Freedman, president of online retail consultants The e-Tailing Group. “Retailers are elevating what could have been baseline functionality so something that was flat has a bit more soul.”

Julian Chu, director of client success at e-commence platform vendor Demandware Inc., says rich imagery around product presentation is on its way to becoming “table stakes. Now people are trying to figure out how to take it to the next level,” he says.

One way retailers are doing so is by making new use of static product images. Powered by Ajax and similar technologies, new online merchandising methods make the experience of viewing even a static image more dynamic-for instance, by popping up a larger view of a detail of the product or by offering more information about it as the shopper mouses over the image.

Case in point is the “Try It Under” feature on HerRoom.com, a lingerie site operated by the Andra Group Inc. The blouse overlay feature, created and patented by CEO Tomima Edmark, enables shoppers on a product detail page to mouse over a menu that appears at the side of a product image to change the image, showing how a bra would look under different neckline styles, such as a scoop neck or v-neck.

“We wanted to give women even more information than they could get from a bricks-and-mortar store,” says Peter Kooiker, senior marketing analyst at the Internet-only store. “In a store, a woman would have to bring in or purchase numerous blouses in order to get the same information that we provide online.”

Kooiker will not disclose conversion or order size metrics for shoppers engaging Try It Under vs. those who don’t. “But I can guarantee,” he says, “that if we ever took it down there would be a hue and cry from customers.”

Another example of newer, more dynamic approaches to online merchandising is the diamond search tool developed by online jeweler Blue Nile Inc. Shoppers using the search tool can manipulate sliders to change search parameters by individual product attribute-raising or lowering a desired price range for a diamond, for example, or the range of a diamond’s carat size. Moving the sliders via mouse changes the set of search results without shoppers having to make a single click. “The whole idea of browsing in place is a major theme with rich Internet applications,” Chu observes.

New site search functionality at outdoors outfitter The North Face is another example of how browsing in place is revving up merchandising and boosting sales. Using Fluid Inc.’s interactive merchandising tool, Fluid Display, the retailer’s merchandising team first created more interactive product displays, using color change and magnification options that do not require downloading new pages. Then the team embedded these interactive options for consumers right into search results pages, on which customers now can view all available color options for an item by changing product color of the thumbnail image on that page.

Buying more
The retailer estimates that adding interactive elements to search results has increased conversion on technical (specification-heavy) products by 90% and increased conversions from search pages by 101%. “We knew adding interactive displays meant more consumers would engage with our products. What our results showed was adding interactivity also convinced more shoppers to buy,” says Sarah Gallegher, online manager at The North Face.

The move to more dynamic and interactive product display doesn’t stop with easier manipulation of product images. Polo.com was one of the first apparel sites to offer fashion show videos. Now, a few years later, others are doing the same, but with a key difference: They’re tying online video more tightly into the purchase process to make it a true merchandising tool in addition to a brand-building feature.

Ann Taylor Stores Corp. works with on-demand technology vendor Scene7 Inc. on several rich media applications to support online merchandising. Last fall the retailer ventured into online video. A fashion show produced for the fashion press but captured on video for AnnTaylor.com-a process repeated for the spring collection-has become the most clicked-on content, reports Ann Taylor Direct senior vice president Michelle Pearlman.

Scene7’s platform serves video clips on a web page created by Ann Taylor. Clicking on a Shop the Looks link on the home page of AnnTaylor.com brings shoppers to the page, which offers the option of clicking on a tab to open a window that plays clips. The page itself features thumbnails of outfits modeled in the show. Mousing over the thumbnails brings up a larger image of the outfit; clicking on the thumbnail brings up information on components of the outfit, with the ability to click through to buy them directly from the page.

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