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Comment: Does Rich Media really deliver the riches?

This week's PayPal Online Retail Report has predicted that by 2012, one in every £10 will be spent online. By Rob Tarrant.

GENERAL MERCHANDISE

Comment: Does Rich Media really deliver the riches?

There hasn't been a more exciting time to be an e-tailer. However, with the UK eCommerce space flooded with brands, products, retailers and consumers, Rob Tarrant, Managing Director at Brandbank will argue that to be successful and rise above the competition, companies need to fully understand the importance of relevant visual consumer experience without being dazzled by emerging technologies.

We all know that Britain is a world leader in eCommerce. Online sales generated in the UK represent a third of all online shopping in Europe and the total e-retail market grew by 5 per cent in the UK in 2009. Great news for the industry of course, but don't let this bull market lull you into complacency. Mirroring this growth, consumer's expectations are becoming increasingly more sophisticated. The pace at which eCommerce is evolving is so rapid that companies are at risk of falling behind competitors who have adopted a more forward-thinking approach to online retail.

The growth in the market has opened up an opportunity for brands, suppliers and retailers to do something really creative and innovative with their online product displays - such as with Uniqlo's introduction of UTweet earlier this year, which generated personalised clothes for consumers based on subjects they tweet about. Yet it is important not to get carried away. Brands actually run the risk of not delivering, by being too ambitious in the presentation of their products.

Don't get me wrong, I love watching videos on websites, I love product tours, I love all the new and different multimedia experiences that are becoming available online, there are some truly beautiful websites out there. Does this type of media experience influence me to make a purchase more than would usually be the case? Almost certainly; butdo I think that the solution for retailers is to apply these technologies widely? No, at least, not for now.

My reasoning can be found in the way that these features are currently being deployed by the most successful retailers in different verticals. When you look at the number of products available for sale compared to the number of products that are accompanied by multimedia assets, the ratio is very low. There is a reason for that fact.

The key issue for a retailer is: how can you strike the balance between design creativity and bottom-line conversion? What criteria should be used to decide where and how to deploy new features and media? Very simply, the question that needs to be asked is: what will be most effective at driving conversion rates? If conversion rates are high, the customer will certainly have found the browsing experience to be useful, if they are low, they will not.

For the last three years, there has been a lot of noise in the market about implementing features such as the development of social media apps or the use of 360 degree spin - a great example of the kind of fashionable features which make a retailer sound very innovative! Undoubtedly they're highly effective in certain situations, but don't fall into the trap of thinking that that's always the case. Web designers may think they're wonderful but if you talk to those heavily involved in the retail side of the internet retailing business you will get a different answer. In the vast majority of cases, the most effective web features are still alternative views, zoom, conceptual imagery and additional product information.

I firmly believe that the time will come when widespread, sophisticated multimedia features will result in great conversion rates for retailers - indeed at Brandbank we're already preparing for the increased demand for these kinds of media and data assets - but we're not there yet.

The issue is: is it worth the effort getting these rich media assets for each product on each platform?

For one thing, it's not always appropriate. If I'm buying an expensive power tool, I will potentially be interested in seeing a video showing it in use. If I'm buying a screwdriver, I don't want to see loads of animations or information - I just want to buy it, a front and side view will suffice!

Secondly, consumers' biggest usability gripe has always been and continues to be having to wait for downloads. Truly high-speed broadband is still not widespread enough to accommodate ubiquitous retail video - multi image is still the preferable solutions

Beyond the fundamental issue of which products are suitable for animation, consider what is actually involved in creating and sourcing the imagery, video and data required in creating these features. If you want a high speed multimedia website, you need highly advanced systems that can deal with this type of data many thousands of times. These systems need to be highly specialised - you don't just take a road car and try to turn it into a rally car, it will break. The same is true with the back end systems for a retail site. Some retailers have tried to buy in old catalogue expertise and technology for their websites but they have all come unstuck. New technology is required and new technology is expensive

The scale of a major retailers' supplier base would mean that they would need massive buying departments, capable of dealing with all the product data and media required. There then comes the issue of how to guarantee your suppliers (in most cases, more than 1,000) provide you with consistent sizes, specifications and quantities of data. We're still not at the stage where even bar codes are used everywhere they should be. Even very simple data (e.g. height, weight etc.) is frequently inconsistent on retailers' sites. It can take four or five attempts just to get hold of a supplier just for updates to ordinary images and data - if you add multimedia into the mix you are effectively quadrupling the workload!

As a supplier, even if you've got a great product, supplying images or data to all your retailers (who are likely to want different types and specifications of media to differentiate themselves) is extremely difficult and even harder to retain control of the way your brand is presented. Consider how much more this will be the case with the demands of multimedia.

Despite this effort however, retailers do need to consider whether rich media tools are right for them, so that they don't run the risk of being eclipsed by more forward-thinking competitors. There hasn't been a more exciting time for e-tailers in terms of scope for creativity, thanks to the move towards rich media and mCommerce. However e-tailers run the risk of being too enticed by multimedia features, forgetting that it is the relevance of the overall customer experience which is key. If online retailers want to maintain the huge growth that we have seen over the last couple of years and which is predicted, they need to think both intelligently and creatively, to ensure their products are relevantly and effectively displayed. 

Rob Tarrant is MD of Brandbank

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