March 31, 2011, 12:00 AM

Like Being There

Online retailers enrich their rich media tools, seeking to hurdle a top obstacle to web shopping.

Lead Photo

The desire to see an item in person before buying it is the No. 1 reason consumers say they won't buy online, according to a consumer survey conducted last year by Lightspeed Research. E-retailers are trying to neutralize the concern—cited by 40% of shoppers that don't shop online—and make all consumers more confident in their e-retail purchases through the strategic use of rich media tools like video, 360-degree product views and high-resolution image zooming.

It may not be quite the same as rubbing a garment between two fingers or sitting on a sofa, but these tools make a difference. And many online retailers that deployed them over the past few years are making their rich media tools richer than ever before.

Take OverstockArt.com, which sells handmade reproductions of famous oil paintings by the likes of Picasso, Van Gogh and Klimt. Shoppers can magnify the site's high-resolution images to examine brush strokes up close and use a tool called "view in room" that superimposes the painting on stock photos of common room settings, such as centered over a couch or bed.

The site enhanced the view-in-room feature late last year by enabling consumers to upload their own photos, so they can see what the reproductions would look like in their own dining room or den. They can also test out different sizes of the painting and change framing options on the fly.

"Handmade oil paintings are very visual products and they're not an easy product to sell online," says David Sasson, OverstockArt's president and CEO. "Ultimately, the person would like to stand in front of it and make their decisions. View in room helps us give them an experience a step above what they can do in a gallery."

OverstockArt is not alone. Many e-retailers are steadily adopting rich media tools. According to research conducted during 2010's fourth quarter by retail consultancy The E-tailing Group, 80% of leading e-retailers offer alternate photo views of products, up from 76% in 2009, and 73% use video, up from 55%. E-retailers are testing and tweaking how and where to implement rich media to get the best return on investment. And consumer goods manufacturers are investing more in video in particular, hoping to better present their products on their own sites, and on the sites of retailers that sell their goods.

A goal of 10:1

In fact, Cathy McManus, marketing director at e-retailer StacksandStacks.com, says she has begun approaching manufacturers about helping cover her cost of producing original product videos now that she has some solid results to present. The web retailer of home storage and organizational products began adding product videos to its site about 18 months ago and its video library now includes about 500 videos. A consumer who views a product video is up to 144% more likely to add that product to her cart than a consumer who watches no video, McManus says, and the original videos produced for Stacks and Stacks by Invodo are 50% more effective than manufacturer videos. McManus hasn't gotten any commitments from manufacturers to help cover the cost of the videos, but says they appear receptive to the idea.

McManus says she aims for a long-term 10 to 1 return on any marketing-related investment, and that while the site's return on video isn't there yet, it's getting close. "It takes time to build," she says.

Invodo, which specializes in producing and hosting videos for web retailers, stores the video on its servers, and streams the content to StacksandStacks.com when a visitor clicks the Play button. Having content delivered on-demand in this way means the e-retailer doesn't have to worry about the video impacting overall site performance, McManus says. She pays a flat monthly fee for Invodo to host the videos, and the cost to produce each video is determined on a case-by-case basis.

McManus would not disclose the fees she pays. But other retailers say video is relatively inexpensive, at least once a retailer makes the initial investment in equipment to produce the short film clips. Ice.com, an online retailer of jewelry, spent nearly $50,000 to build its own video studio and each video produced now costs about $100-$120, the retailer says. E-retailer Airgun Depot puts the cost of producing a product video at $300-$500 for clips of one to five minutes in length. Services that host and stream video typically charge $100-$500 per month, depending on the quantity of video transmitted to a retailer's site.

While the costs are not astronomical, they can add up, and e-retailers like McManus try to employ rich media where it will have the most impact. Stacks and Stacks looks to sales statistics and the level of product complexity involved to select which products to feature in original videos. "The products that need more explanation are the ones you want to show," she says. "Customers contact us and say, ÔI didn't know how the heck it was going to be constructed, but the video made it look so simple.'"

Products that are simpler but are still top-sellers also get videos because the e-retailer figures video will drive incremental sales. McManus says she thinks the videos are more effective selling tools for some customers than the original text Stacks and Stacks tries to write for each product. "Sometimes it is hard to express what customers want to know about a product in copy without boring them half to death," she says. "Video is one way to do it without expressing it in words."

More zoom

Video is not the only rich media tool getting more attention from e-retailers. At OverstockArt.com, which added an advanced zoom function in mid-2010, Sasson says he is trying to apply high-resolution zooming capabilities to every product his site sells. For products it's sold for a long time that means taking new high-resolution photographs so consumers see the brushstrokes in magnified images. The view-in-room tool and a frame-selection feature are already available site-wide.

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