Does online shopping need better client-side technology?
By David Walker (Google profile)
After spending most of the late 1990s revelling in new browser-based technologies, many commercial Web sites have spent the past two years sobering up. They've ditched client-side Java, been cautious about the increasing popular Flash, and ditched eccentric interfaces for emerging standards. They want to succeed in selling by keeping things simple, the way Amazon, Yahoo, Dell and eBay do. The post-tech-wreck failures such as Boo.com have only encouraged them to Keep It Simple.
Now comes a controversial report claiming this trend has gone too far. Jupiter Media Metrix's September 2000 report on shopping technologies voices great surprise that less than 20 percent of online retailers use Java, Flash, and chat facilities on their Web sites. And it argues such technologies can enhance the online shopping experience and close sales.
"Sites must abandon conservative Web development practices", it declares. "The majority of sites in complex product categories - auto, real estate, home furnishings and housewares, PCs and peripheral devices, and apparel - have failed to proactively integrate advanced technologies to increase online consumer satisfaction."
Jupiter's report aims at a real problem. A number of online retailers in "complex product categories" such as clothing, furniture and cars face the struggle of selling stuff which customers usually want to feel before they buy. Jupiter notes that several of these sites have experienced high return levels because users didn't like the stuff when they got it. Jupiter's answer: apply browser-baser technologies strategically to give users a better picture (often literally) of what they're buying.
Despite its aggressive language, Jupiter's report contains some good advice:
- It actually suggests a careful approach to many new browser-based techniques. It insists that sites which implement fancy browser-based technology should do it to solve specific sales problems - and then track how the technology improves sales.
- It argues for a low-investment approach to online chat, sensibly suggesting most firms should experiment by buying in outside chat expertise from a supplier such as LivePerson.
- Its case studies tend to focus on easy-to-use, no-plugin tools such as MGI's Zoom Server for zooming in on product shots, and the dynamic HTML system for modelling garments which was developed by US catalogue retailer Land's End.
- It cites its own research suggesting that most people who claim to want "virtual dressing rooms" have never used them.
But the Jupiter report pushes too hard in a couple of places.
First, it claims its data shows some consumers are now clamouring for more complex software within their browsers. "Web ventures are not meeting the technical propensity of online consumers," it says. "Players may fail to connect with sophisticated users ...As consumers' expectations are heightened, late movers will lose audience and market share".
We need far more proof that these give-me-more-technology consumers exists in numbers that justify substantial technology spending.
The Jupiter report also goes too far with its support for technologies such as the new generation of 3-D display plug-ins from firms like Cycore. "Because players cannot sell directly online, 3-D technology gives users a near-offline experience," the report enthuses.
The author of the report may need to spend more time in real shops. Cars, for instance, sell on a subtle mix of characteristics which 3-D imaging signally fails to capture. Toyota Sweden's 3-D Celica (go to www.toyota.se and look for Celicas and the "3-D modell") seems rather less interesting than it would in a good collection of photographs. The 3-D Celica will also have limited appeal while the doors open inward, the way they did when I was there. And 3-D continues to suffer the navigation flaws of the old (1997-era) VRML technology: you're using a 2-D screen and a 2-D mousepad and ... damn, you just went right through the floor again.
Of course, it may just may be that stuff like clothing, furniture and cars will forever remain a tough sell online. But you won't catch me saying that.