February 27, 2009, 12:00 AM

Balancing Act

Rich media enhances retail web sites, but can slow performance. E-retailers must learn the best ways to juggle those competing interests.

It’s no secret that rich media is one way retail sites seek to entice shoppers and distinguish themselves from the competition. The ability to enlarge detail on a product photo, rotate, change color, customize or otherwise interact with it is on the rise at retailers. According to The E-tailing Group’s quarterly Mystery Shopping Study, the zoom feature has a 90% penetration rate among the 100 retailers surveyed in the fourth quarter of 2008, up from 86% a year earlier. At 60% of retailers, the ability to change product color has risen from 57% a year ago.

It stands to reason that the better online shoppers can see a product image, the more likely they are to click the Buy button. But rich media’s ability to draw in shoppers depends on it doing exactly what it’s supposed to do when it hits a browser-every browser-in response to online shoppers’ requests.

Heavy lifting

That can take a lot of heavy lifting on the back end, with cost and resource implications that may temporarily be lost in the dazzle of one e-retailer’s vision of a diamond ring that spins as it sparkles on the site, or another’s pursuit of more online product customization as the key to more sales.

Lids.com offers one of the Internet’s biggest collections of customizable hats, with shoppers able to choose colors, graphics, logos and even upload their own design elements. To bring up a preview of the finished custom product, shoppers’ choices on color and style are relayed to a server, which has seconds to read the code attached to the request, find the right image on the server or generate it if it isn’t already there, and return it to the shopper’s browser. It requires a lot of code and a lot of processing and server power, which is why Lids uses a rich media platform, Liquid Pixels, to make sure it happens on time, every time.

To Steve Wentzell, director of e-commerce at Lids’ owner Hat World Corp., a unit of Genesco Inc., the near-instant preview of the customized product represents the difference between making the sale or not. “You have to be able to see the product, given the fact we have so many different ways to customize it,” he says. “ I think it would be a hard sell otherwise to consumers in today’s environment.”

As Lids’ experience shows, speedy rich media can close a sale. But the tradeoff between the merchandising benefits of rich media and the demand it can place on servers and site performance is an increasing challenge as e-commerce sites load up with more features to enlarge, rotate and otherwise manipulate static product images.

“As you make the content more rich and more interactive, there is a penalty in terms of response time for that application,” says Pedro Santos, chief strategist for e-commerce at Akamai Technologies Inc., a content delivery network. And delayed site response opens the door to shopper bailout.

Why rich media

So where’s the balance between rich Internet applications that can bring visitors to a site and add incremental sales, on the one hand, and the demand on infrastructure that can slow site performance and have shoppers clicking elsewhere, on the other? The answer’s different for every retailer.

Before they fall in love with the latest rich media merchandising tools and applications, retailers can probe for their own answer to that question. One place to start is to ask how important it is in their product category for customers to interact with a product image versus viewing a static image. Selling light bulbs depends more on supplying specifications rather than a rich interactive display; showing greatly enlarged detail on how a hood attaches to a jacket is a critical piece of information for a mountain climber.

Retailers also need to be clear about their strategic objectives for the site. Diapers.com, for example, last year relaunched its site to add zoom and video on the home page. Its previous site had no rich media applications. “But they wanted to go from being a place where you went just to transact to building some brand loyalty,” says Andy Lloyd, chief executive officer of the site’s rich media platform vendor, Fluid Inc.

Some of the biggest questions for online retailers weighing the benefits of adding rich media applications are how much they will increase demand on site infrastructure and how to handle that.

Though some Internet retailers build their own rich media applications for product imaging, this takes time and I.T. resources that make looking to outside vendors an easier option for most. “I told my boss if he could set aside my other duties for a few months I could do this,” says CindyLu Gall, director of information technology at home décor accessories retailer Danielson Designs Ltd., which is adding advanced customization. Though Gall also is a programmer, the company was looking for speed, so she’s working with Liquid Pixels on a new site expected to launch this spring.

Serving up a consistent rich media feature every time shoppers ask for it depends on the complexity of the application, the number of consumers trying to use it simultaneously and the detail needed in the image. All three place demands on servers that can diminish page and application loading speed unless a site is ready for it.

Crowds create crashes

Rich media vendors have developed a variety of workarounds to speed up what would otherwise be unacceptably long wait times for the applications to load up and perform. Fluid’s Fluid Experience shopping platform, for example, supplies product zoom, rotation, color changes and interactive product displays by pre-generating the basic images and sending them out to the user’s browser in response to the user’s request.

When a consumer wants to change a product color, that request doesn’t go back to Fluid’s servers. Instead, because the applications are written in Flash and Flash players are almost universally present on browsers, the request for a color change triggers processing power already residing on the consumer’s browser to tint the image with a new color and serve it up.

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