From lingerie to lawnmowers: getting past the page

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A recent Forrester Research paper cites the astonishing statistic that only 26 percent of Web shoppers report satisfaction after completing a transaction, versus 70 percent for in-store shopping.

Clearly an enormous chasm gapes between consumers' online expectations and reality, with disappointment as the outcome for the vast majority of online shoppers.

What is at the root of this massive disillusionment? I believe it is that we are reaching the fundamental limits of the original Web page metaphor which launched the first generation of ecommerce, but has since kept the online shopping experience tightly trapped in an electronic catalog paradigm where consumers are forced to drill through page after page of category and product pages before completing an electronic version of an order form.

The end result is a highly constrained and rigid shopping experience in which the exact same shopping processes are used by every online retailer and for every type of product sold today.

When you compare and contrast the in-store experiences of, for example, Victoria's Secret and The Home Depot, it helps us realize that Internet experiences have a steep evolutionary curve ahead.

The fact that today's online shopping experience is identical for lingerie and lawnmowers goes a long way toward explaining Forrester's low satisfaction numbers.

The rigidity of today's electronic catalog shopping means that online retailers have very little ability to truly merchandize their products. There are just only so many ways to list a bunch of products on a page, electronic or not. The ability to shape and manage an experience that is exciting, enticing, and relevant to a shopper looking for a particular type of product is utterly missing from the online world.

To move beyond the catalog metaphor, and to raise online shopping satisfaction, we have to invent new models for the Web shopping experience. In this endeavor, I believe we can start by looking no further than some of the software already running on our computers.

When we aren't using our computers for shopping (or for actually doing some work), we're using our computers for communication, socializing, and entertainment, taking full advantage of the incredible advances in technology and networking of the past ten years.

Today's computers have cinematic quality video, audio, computer graphics, and animation. Coupled with broadband Internet speeds, our non-shopping and non-work experiences (think iTunes, Skype, or World of Warcraft) are fantastically engaging and richly entertaining.

Online shopping can begin to catch up by adopting three simple lessons from these richer applications. Leverage new AJAX and Rich Internet Application technologies to break free of the constraints of the electronic page metaphor. Develop shopping experiences that are purpose built for the specific products, brands, and targeted market. Exploit the ability to create and shape richly interactive experiences to merchandise products in an engaging, immersive, and entertaining way.

Instead of sending you a page of text and images, an AJAX or RIA site sends you software, which effectively takes over your Web browser and can offer virtually any experience that its designers can think of. Some terrific examples of this technology would include Google Maps and the Mini Cooper car configurator.

The key factor in AJAX and RIA sites is that the user experience is purpose built exclusively for the task at hand. Rather than attempting to force a complex task into an inappropriate page metaphor, these new technologies enable marketers and merchandisers to develop an online shopping experience that reinforces and advances the overall brand experience.

Should the online experience feel like walking through a physical store, a catwalk runway, window-shopping down Fifth Avenue, lounging in a loft, or even a virtual reality video game?

Once past the electronic page, merchandisers will be able to choose the experience and metaphor that expresses, extends, and differentiates their brand. This ability to make creative choices about online brand expression is becoming particularly critical as retailers increase their focus on their brand experience across all channels and as the online channel continues to grow in consumer mindshare.

Pushing past the electronic page metaphor through AJAX and RIA technology also enables online retailers to develop shopping experiences that are easier to use and more effective than what is possible through traditional Web pages. The Mini Cooper configurator enables consumers to quickly and easily customize their new car and see exactly what it will look like, down to the details on the wing mirrors.

This level of virtual touch enables the buyer to begin to fall in love with their new vehicle in a way that isn't possible on a static Web page or in a physical showroom for that matter. These kinds of rich shopping experiences will quickly raise the consumer expectations bar, and rapidly drive further proliferation. Indeed, we are already seeing configuration and visualization as an almost required feature for high-end, customizable products that are sold online.

These days we expect our computers to entertain and engage us, but when was the last time that Internet retail really made you smile? I'm certain that in years to come, we will look back on today's ecommerce experiences much in the way that modern video game designers look back on the first generations of Space Invaders and Pac Man.

As the electronic catalog model gives way to interactive, immersive and media rich shopping experiences, I expect we'll see an enormous amount of experimentation and creativity as different brands and niches discover the most effective ways of engaging their customers and differentiating their offerings.

Shopping for underwear just won't be the same. And, fortunately, it won't be the same as shopping for a lawnmower.

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