May 29, 2009, 12:00 AM

New Two

The latest Web 2.0 technologies deepen interactivity and provide more ways for consumers to shop together online.

Online retailing has always faced a significant conundrum: It can’t recreate the shopping experience of being in a real store. Seeking to overcome that hurdle, sporting gear and accessories retailer JanSport deployed in April the Fluid Social application from vendor Fluid Inc. that takes advantage of the popularity of Facebook to enable friends to exchange ideas as they shop online.

Once consumers have downloaded the JanSport application to their Facebook pages and registered, they can chat with each other while on JanSport product pages. Or, by clicking on a My Friends Like link they can see JanSport products their friends have posted on Facebook.

This new feature enables JanSport to tie that interaction more closely with the online shopping experience, says Courtney Blacker, director of brand marketing. “This social application allows us to have a one-to-one conversation with consumers which will build the brand as that emotional connection grows and spurs long-term sales growth and loyalty,” Blacker says.

Social and interactive

The JanSport application is an example of the next generation of Web 2.0. That term describes ways in which using the Internet has evolved beyond just clicking from one static page to another to a more interactive and dynamic experience.

Using Ajax to pop up more product detail and customer reviews was typical of the early days of Web 2.0. But today Web 2.0 technologies are becoming more sophisticated. Retailers already are deploying features that let a web site more closely approximate the way a human salesperson would help a consumer select a product, and that, like the JanSport example, enable consumers to shop together online.

On the way are even more innovative technologies that will move online retailing still further away from static product presentations.

Shortcovers, the e-books division of Indigo Books & Music Inc., is an example of an online merchant making product presentation more dynamic by letting consumers quickly change the content of its home page to suit their tastes.

The home page displays several titles the retailer is currently featuring. But above those thumbnail images are tabs that let the site visitor see what was featured yesterday, last week and last month. Only the images and related text change-the page itself does not refresh.

Similarly, a consumer can choose to view the most popular titles, those with the best ratings or new additions. And they can choose to see books, chapters, articles, short stories and other types of content. Whatever they choose, that section of the page changes to display that content, without the home page itself refreshing.

“The more page refreshes a user has to go through, the higher probability you lose that customer. It’s purely about delivering a great experience that drives conversion,” says Michael Serbinis, executive vice president and chief information officer at Indigo Books & Music and head of Shortcovers, which boasts 10,000 registered users in more than 160 countries since its February launch. “If you can do that with fewer clicks and fewer screen refreshes, all the better.”

Shortcovers’ I.T. team built the functionality using Ajax for page display and web services to funnel the appropriate information from its databases to the pages. The cost was no different than that for creating a set-up where shoppers would have to click from page to page every time they wanted a different view, Serbinis says.

It’s too early to draw conclusions on how the Web 2.0 technology is faring, but he says so far the conversion rate is “reasonable for just being out of the gate.”

Browsing together

Novica, a partner of National Geographic that sells works of art from artists around the world, also is just out of the gate with its Web 2.0 technology, co-browsing. It had been using the technology previously for customer service, and it says customers approved. Last month it opened up the technology to all registered customers to use among themselves.

From a prompt directly below a registered shopper’s name on the upper left of the home page, the technology launches a system through vendor Sesh Inc.’s site that frames the retailer’s site, allowing a shopper to invite another registered Novica shopper to discuss products in a chat box, write notes on top of any section of a web page, and use pen tools to draw on the site. Co-browsing functionality also enables shoppers to navigate the site together, each taking turns guiding one another to different pages.

Novica decided to go beyond customer service and create a social shopping environment for customers to interact on their own to build on its Novica Friends community, where, à la Facebook, registered users can become followers of any of the artists from around the world with products on Novica.com.

Sesh plans an enhancement that it will offer to e-retailers like Novica. The vendor is working on a method to draw social network users to retailers using its system by creating a Facebook application that Facebook users would download to their accounts.

The application will enable a user to invite a Facebook friend to a “sesh.” If the friend accepts, the application will take both users out of Facebook.com to the retailer’s home page for co-browsing. Further, the company foresees tying this functionality to retailers’ social network display advertising.

Using the Internet has always been an individual experience, but shopping is so often a social experience, such as going to the mall with friends, says Jarrod Rogers, Sesh CEO.

Recent research has shown consumers now spend more time on social networks than they do on personal e-mail sites. Sesh wants to take advantage of increased social networking to facilitate social shopping experiences online.

“Technology that can marry socializing, display advertising and shopping can bridge the gap between social networks and generating revenue, for retailers and social networks,” Rogers says.

Interactive sites

While retailers like Novica are using Web 2.0 technology to make the shopping experience between a shopper and her friends more interactive, others are focusing technology efforts on making the experience between a shopper and an e-commerce site more interactive.

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