3-D or not 3-D that is the question

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Some traditional retailers have adopted a back-to-basics approach for their Web sites, skipping glitzy, attention-getting technology that may turn off consumers.

Many analysts speculate being too technologically advanced is a major reason that e-tailers have failed, with high-profile plays such as Boo.com and Walt Disney Co.-backed Toysmart joining the ranks of bankrupt businesses. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers' "School of Hard Knocks" report on e-tailing, the lesson of what happens when a business does too much too soon still needs to be driven home to e-tailers.

"One of the first things they teach you in the military is KISS, which is short for, 'Keep it simple, stupid.' This simple lesson is chronically ignored on the Internet. Big development organizations breed complexity when it comes to both software and Web-page design," the report said.

'OLD CARNIVAL GAME'

Even critics of the study might agree that it was more annoying than helpful for online shopping when an animated Miss Boo would jump out at the most inappropriate time and to try to sell something in which the user had no interest whatsoever.

"Pop-up menus that create a new browser window become like that old carnival game, whack-a-mole. You just want them to go away," stated the PWC report.

By requiring a plug-in, many sites limit who can access the information.

This was the case with now-defunct Digital Entertainment Network, a California-based entertainment site that required downloading several programs before it would run.

What makes many sites unfriendly to consumers is requiring a high-speed connection to make them worthwhile. While approximately 50% of American households use the Internet, only 5% of the Internet population (or 2.5% of the general population) has broadband access, according to researcher Gartner Group. Some studies show people are slower to adopt new technology than marketers once thought.

"Consumers without high bandwidth don't tend to download streaming video or high-impact visuals about new products. They still have a text-based orientation to the Web, and use the physical stores to do the usual touching and tasting," said Moses Frenck, President of AllYourContent, a provider of editorial content and marketing services for e-businesses and print and online media. "In the next few years, more people will be able to immediately access high-speed graphics and rich media. Until then, though, e-tailers with technologically pumped up sites might have more frustrated browsers than tech-savvy buyers."

Top dogs at Bombay Co., Home Depot and Target Stores' Target.com echoed that sentiment at a National Retail Federation conference late last month. They told attendees at the San Diego gathering about their lack of enthusiasm for adding 3-D and streaming video options to their sites. The executives asserted that consumer frustration with high-tech features is a major reason for abandoned shopping carts at e-tail sites.

RICH MEDIA A BUST FOR BOMBAY

Cathy Pringle, VP-marketing for Bombay, said the furniture retailer received a great deal of negative consumer feedback regarding 3-D technology and other high-tech additions to its site bombayco.com.

"We are now in the third version of our site," Ms. Pringle said. "On the second version of our site, we had enhanced rich media and we got nothing for it. We got no credit for it, and the technological difficulties that were associated with the site really were an impediment--it slowed customers down."

"Any time you get more complex on a site, you're going to ask for a problem--either with maintenance or people who only have a 28K [modem] and they can't download the images. So it's adding a level of complexity that didn't get us a lot for it," Ms. Pringle said.

"Not that [rich is] not valuable; you just have to examine by industry and by customer segment where it falls in the priorities of the customers. One of the ways to understand that is to do customer satisfaction surveys with your own customers to ask them what they're looking for."

TARGET: NO 'COOL FOR COOL'S SAKE'

Cathy David, general manager of Target.com, echoed the feeling.

"We want to make sure that every guest has a great experience, and not just the people" who have high-speed Internet connections. "We don't want to add cool for cool's sake. We want to really add value to people's experience on the Web site." Ms. David said Target decided to hold off on some of the technologically advanced items that were in its original Web plans.

Home Depot, which is the fourth-highest grossing retailer in the country, also plans to avoid too much online technology.

"If the customer asked for it, we would provide it, but people are not asking for it," said Ellen Dracos, director-Internet for Home Depot. "We are going to let customers drive the development of the site."

The issue is not simply about waiting for consumers to catch up technologically. It is very different and complex issue when it comes to the needs of online-only retailers vs. click-and-mortar stores. Pure plays lack physical storefronts to show off products and services, such as apparel that needs to be tried on or color and texture seen and felt. As of now, most people just can't smell the perfume or kick the tires online.

But you can see things as they would appear in reality or try clothes on a virtual model built from your measurements. Perhaps this is why Lands' End, which ranks closely with competitors such as J. Crew and Eddie Bauer Inc. in gross revenue, has the most sophisticated of the three sites.

LAND'S END NEEDS TO OFFER MORE

The Lands' End site, which is advertised in TV and print campaigns from DDB Worldwide, Chicago, offers 3-D modeling for its shoppers. Lands' End is a direct marketer with a limited number of brick-and-mortar outlet stores, in comparison to J. Crew or Eddie Bauer, so it needs to give shoppers more complete information in its catalog and online communications. Wal-Mart Stores' Sam's Club is experimenting with streaming media to see if that increases sales.

But by holding back on high-tech gizmos, pure-play and click-and-mortar retailers are showing they need to spend more on online customer service, fulfillment and marketing instead of spending their budgets trying to win customers with blinks and bleeps. The future success of pure plays depends on their ability to maintain that balance between online shopping gizmos and convenience.

Copyright October 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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