July 29, 2010, 3:35 PM

360-degree views work every angle for SprinklerWarehouse.com

The irrigation supplies retailer douses its product-return rate with product photos.

Katie Evans

Managing Editor, International Research

It all started with a box about the size of a mini-fridge, some basic software and an off-the-shelf Canon digital camera. Those three items and a $3,000 check helped boost sales 34%, and decrease returns from 1.9% of all sales to .6% at SprinklerWarehouse.com , says Steve Okelberry president and CEO.

The retailer had been having a difficult time finding images that showed exact details of the thousands of irrigation supply products it offers. Okelberry, who launched the company out of his garage in 1996, had been using images from manufacturers, but said those weren’t cutting it—and often were misleading shoppers.

For example, a manufacturer might use the same image for an indoor and outdoor version of a sprinkler head. And so if a shopper ordered the indoor version of the sprinkler, she wouldn’t get a hood that was shown in the picture. Or, a manufacturer might provide only images of sprinklers with a screw-in valve even though some of its products still had valves that needed to be glued in.

“Customers would call and say, I thought this came with a hood, and we would have to explain,” Okelberry says. The lack of accurate, detailed images was leading to returns. About 3.4% of SprinklerWarehouse.com’s sales by dollar value were eventually returned during the 12-month period from July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2009.

But by last summer SprinklerWarehouse.com had discovered a tool that could help solve its dilemma. A system from vendor Ortery Technologies enabled the retailer to create 360-degree Flash sequences in minutes, says Molly Reed, senior web developer for the retailer. And that has helped boost sales and page views, and decrease returns.

To take the pictures, Reed first installed basic photography software onto her computer, then hooked a compatible camera up to her computer with a USB cable. The software enables her to photograph products on a turntable in the mini-fridge-sized box via her computer. Using the software, Reed can zoom and edit photos to her liking. When finished, she uploads still product photos to her e-commerce platform from Volusion Inc., and integrates the 360-degree Flash files into HTML coding on product pages.

Reed takes, on average, four still product photos and 16 photos for the rotating Flash sequences. The process is simple, and shooting a product takes just two to three minutes, she says. So far, SprinklerWarehouse has added rotating sequences for nearly 1,000 products to its site. Its goal is to soon have them for every item.

Okelberry says there’s no question the 360-degree sequences were worth the $3,000 for the system plus the cost of the camera. In addition to sales growing 34% year over year the dollar value of returns dropped from 3.4% to 1.2%.

Page views also have increased significantly. SprinklerWarehouse took random products and compared page views for the same before-and-after time period and found page views increased as much as 84%. Page views for one product grew from 9,678 to 17,352; views for another increased from 39,945 to 73,517.

“Wow, what an increase in customers' interest in products with 360 images,” Okelberry says. “Most of all I can’t believe how inexpensive the technology is. So many companies find out how valuable their products or services are, and then they make it so you can’t afford them. That’s not the case here.”

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