Your Business Online | Professional Jeweler



April 10, 2000
E-tailing's New Dimension
Increasingly, customers want to "handle" online merchandise

Until recently, online jewelers have been at a disadvantage. They can't be coy about prices like their bricks-and-mortar competitors – who would go to a Web site where all the price tags are face down? They also can't use the touch-and-feel strategy of selling jewelry as easily. However, recent technology aims at getting them a little closer.

Increasingly, retailers are using three-dimensional product images and virtual models that allow customers to get a detailed, 360° look at the goods. One example is Rolex, whose recently launched Web site (www.rolex.com) allows browsers to rotate a watch and view it from every angle. Another is Fingerhut's MyJewelry.com where customers can design rings and then view 3D images of their craftsmanship.

Some experts question the usefulness of 3D technology. "I cannot believe that an image rendering tool will be a customer acquisition tool," Kenneth Cassar, an analyst for Jupiter Communications, told Eretailing World magazine. Others warn such technology could alienate customers who don't have adequate software to use such features or who don't want to endure lengthier download times.

In a competitive environment, however, decisions likely will turn on the fact companies using such technology report higher traffic counts. Since implementing 3D technology, The Sharper Image (www.sharperimage.com) reports its overall page views have increased by 45%.

"Customers visit our site just to check out our 3D images and play with our gadgets online," said Meredith Medland, director of the company's Internet division. "It is also a way to differentiate our brand and help customers interact with our products."

The Sharper Image uses an application from Shells Interactive and Shockwave from Macromedia to create 3D images that replicate the in-store experience. London apparel retailer Boo.com allows customers to try on outfits with a virtual personal model based on their own dimensions. At Furniture.com, customers can enter their room dimensions, then draw items from inventory and "furnish" a virtual room. (Try that in a furniture store!)

Despite varying degrees of enthusiasm, all observers seem to agree no e-tailer can afford to sacrifice a site's quality and service. The Sharper Image attempts a balance by allowing customers to choose whether they want a standard or "enhanced" experience.

- by Mark E. Dixon