February 28, 2005, 12:00 AM

Zoom, Zoom

Zoom, pan and other rich media show their worth.

Anthropologie will double its budget on rich media this year. Why not? Since the apparel and home goods retailer last September greatly improved functionality in zoom, pan, and swatch toggling, Anthropologie has enjoyed a steady increase in online sales, says e-commerce manager Ranjana Sharma.

"Zoom is the key ingredient that gives the visitor enough reason to purchase the product and caters to impulse buying," Sharma says. "By bringing the customer so close to the real product, we are able to close the sale." Combined with an increased selection of products on its site and more product categories, she says the company`s investment in rich media has paid off even though she can`t pinpoint exactly how much she can attribute to the company`s rich media advances.

Not alone

Anthropologie, part of Urban Outfitters Inc., is not alone in expanding its use of rich online media. Although the bottom line is often hard to gauge, retailers are making greater use of the more established forms of rich media technology these days, such as zoom and hot spot zoom, as well as color and pattern swatching.

And many are now working the expense into their regular e-commerce budgets. "We roll it into the cost of the overall production of our site," says Ron Offir, divisional vice president for the Coach.com division of leather goods retailer/manufacturer Coach Inc. "It`s a part of who we are and how our site functions, and we view it as an add-on to our photography expense."

Offir also sees color swatching and zoom as possible return on investment vehicles. "The technology gives us a way to provide the online shopping experience at a relatively low cost," he adds. "It`s also a very powerful marketing channel for our brand and a driver of business to our stores."

Pressure to one-up the competition is causing many retailers to re-think the use of rich media for imagery, color swatching, zoom and rotation, according to Doug Mack, CEO of rich media provider Scene7 Inc. "We have clients coming to us saying `I`m behind. My competitors are doing this. How can I do it better?`" he says.

Wider array

Another reason for the growing interest in rich media is the fact that retailers have mastered many of the basics of online retailing and are now ready to invest in the add-ons. "In 2001 and `02, we didn`t have the 25%-per-quarter growth that we`re currently having because that was an era of retailers getting their infrastructure right, their search going properly, and their online analytics right," Mack says. "Back then, we were evangelizing the benefits of putting rich media on sites."

Even if retailers were employing rich media back then, many were cautious. But today they are expanding rich media`s use. "Our customers are now using rich media for larger quantities of their product photos than they did two to three years ago," says Christophe Cremault, vice president of marketing for rich media company RichFX Inc. "For instance, zoom has a nearly universal adoption now among retailers--it`s become the standard thing most retailers should have."

In spite of the wider embrace of rich media, many retailers and analysts are unable to prove any ROI. But most argue that it stands to reason that rich media promotes sales. "One of the inhibitors to shopping online is you can`t touch the products," says Patti Freeman Evans, a retail analyst with New York-based Jupiter Research. "So the more detail consumers can see, the more likely they are to make purchases online."

The recent proliferation of broadband Internet access among consumers is partly why some retailers only recently began employing zoom and color swatching on their sites. Jupiter Research and Nielsen/NetRatings, among other researchers, report that as of mid year 2004, more than half of American consumers have broadband access.

Better experience

Historically, the concept of rich media had a negative connotation among consumers who equated the expression with long waits on their PCs. "Four years back, `rich media` meant waiting for the files to download and see the `cool` stuff," says Sharma of Anthropologie. "But it has evolved since and now you can have better experiences with the new technology."

For furniture and home goods marketer Ballard Designs, which sells through its three stores and print catalogs, online sales have grown to 35%, prompting the company to sell bigger items online, such as couches, with the help of color and pattern swatching, which it introduced last August when it re-launched its site. Since then, sales of Ballard`s furniture bodies overall have jumped 73% and sales of furniture fabrics (without the actual furniture) have increased 96%, compared to respective gains of 47% and 50% between 2003 and 2004.

Although she can`t attribute the company`s entire sales gain to the new technology, vice president of marketing Kim Hansen says color and fabric swatching has helped. "Its impact is a little hard to measure because we have had a lot of things going on at once," she says.

Hansen characterizes Ballard`s investment in rich media as "significant." She notes that there wasn`t initially a "slam dunk" increase in additional sales to cover the company`s added expense in zoom and color swatching. "But we think it will pay itself back in a relatively short time--just not immediately," she adds.

Ballard, part of Cornerstone Brands Inc., offers some 55 furniture bodies in 60 fabrics.

Hansen says zoom has been particularly helpful in selling furniture or fabrics with a distressed look. "People can see distressed finishes in a catalog to some degree, but not with the clarity of what the finishes will really look like," Hansen says. "So we wanted to make sure customers really wanted distressed finishes to reduce returns."

Additionally, she says, "Ballard is all about decorating but the catalog hasn`t come through as strongly as we`d have liked. With this technology, we`re able to give the furniture and fabrics their proper show in a way they can be sold on the web."

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