October 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

Just Ahead

New e-commerce technology is poised to re-shape the online shopping experience—again.

One of a retailer’s best customers is seated at her computer monitor-but she’s working, not shopping. That is, until a small window opens in the lower right corner of her screen to let her know that her favorite apparel brand has added new products. And it’s not just a text message. With one click of the mouse, the window maximizes on her screen to deliver a multimedia fashion show.

But the shopper isn’t seeing video of models on the runway. Instead, her screen serves up a richer product view with special effects she can manipulate with instant results, faster than what she’d see on the retailer’s e-commerce site; for instance, fading one color view of a product into another color simply by nudging her mouse, or “floating” the image of a jacket across the window to match up with another image of a blouse. She clicks on a skirt and brings up a box with a product image, product details and a mini-clipboard where she makes a note to herself- “for Susan’s wedding” -and drags it all to a “save-it” area for future consideration.

Later, she’s looking online to complete the rest of her outfit. But she doesn’t have to loop back to multiple sites to revisit what initially captured her attention. Instead, as she shopped she dragged and dropped the items that interested her into the same “save-it” area-a concept one web design firm dubs the “uberbucket” -which goes with her wherever she goes online. When she’s ready to buy, she highlights selected items in the bucket. With one checkout consisting of a click or two, she completes payment and shipping arrangements at all of the retailers.

Later still, she decides to buy a handbag she had started to order, but abandoned. She never did log on at that retailer, instead shopping the site anonymously. But she doesn’t have to re-create her order or any information about it when she goes back to the site and clicks to call about the bag. Instead, the agent on the phone at the other end immediately greets her by name, with information about her uncompleted order and the product. The agent offers a hat that complements the handbag-just the sort of style the shopper likes, and within the price range she is most likely to be willing to pay.

It’s coming

It all sounds very futuristic, but that shopping scenario, or some version of it, may be coming very soon to a computer monitor near you. In fact, parts of it already have arrived as e-commerce technology developers roll out new releases and tests.

At a conceptual level, the new shopping applications are all rooted in the unmet needs and implementation barriers merchants wrestle with as they seek to better leverage the opportunity of the Internet. So the new applications and those under development blast through the infrastructure constraints of browsers, for example, to serve up a richer visual experience through the desktop. They free shoppers to tote images and product information with them as they travel the web. They segment personalized offers more finely and with speedier automation of that process.

Some of the most interesting new applications are still just in the realm of “why not.” For instance, Bridget Fahrland, executive creative director at Fry Inc., identifies one huge need driving development in e-commerce technology as the need for greater expediency. So she visualizes a future shopping application in which shoppers could text to buy from a web site. “Why not be on a site and be able to text to buy from the site with your cell phone? It would be so much easier,” she says.

Such an application might allow a customer to choose a product, color and size from a web site page, and all of that information could generate a specific text identifier number, she adds. “Your cell phone already has information about who you are and where you live built in, so you can save the step of entering all that. You’d just have to enter your credit card information,” she says.

Fry also is intrigued with the concept it tags the “uberbucket” for its go-anywhere utility to online shoppers. Fahrland says such an application might look like a kind of mini-browser within a browser, into which shoppers could drag products, pictures and other online content. The application could call back to any store to check on inventory status, but interact with a master checkout and transaction processor so as to allow shoppers to check out centrally instead of at each retailer site. “Since 1994, we have been filling out billing and shipping pages on different sites again and again,” Fahrland says. “We’re ready for a change.”

Plenty of room for improvement

Looking out across the e-commerce landscape, technology developers see plenty of opportunities to improve online shopping for both merchants and shoppers, and in such ideas are the seeds of future commercially-available applications. At licensed software and on-demand e-commerce technology provider Art Technology Group Inc., vice president of product strategy Barry Coleman says retailer customers are asking about how to incorporate user-generated content not just into the online buying process, which already happens in the form of customer reviews, but into the merchandising process itself. Toward that end, ATG is exploring several development possibilities including one that would let users create and display their own favorite product catalogs on a site.

“They could annotate them and they’d drive cross-sells and upsells,” Coleman says. “On something like MySpace, people say what products they like and what they like about them. Why not let people have this conversation on the retailer’s site rather than having it somewhere else?”

While Fahrland’s and Coleman’s ideas are concepts-at least for now-other seemingly futuristic online shopping applications are in the testing stage. One common thread among many applications now being tested is the desire to sidestep the limits of web page infrastructure: issues such as file size, page weights and page loading times. Instead, these applications would reside on consumers’ desktops rather than depending on a live Internet connection to serve content from the retailer.

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