E-commerce’s New Dimension

Virtual Shopping

For the first few years e-commerce was taking hold, it was challenging for sites to get close to delivering the in-store experience online. If a Web site could deliver an experience 80 percent as good as in-store, the rest could be made up with the superior inventory, convenience and price savings that come naturally online.

When the third wave of e-commerce hits sometime in the next two years, there’s a good chance it will be three-dimensional. Maturing beyond merely replicating the in-store experience, the next phase of online retailing will deliver shopping experiences far beyond what is possible at a mall today.

In fact, it’s radically different from the eye-candy fun of today’s typical Second Life entry-level efforts. This is a form where functionality prevails, theoretically.

The first online bookstores certainly had strong inventory, but bookstore shoppers missed the ability to flip through a book before deciding if it was worth purchasing. Amazon.com’s “Read Inside This Book” was the breakthrough that converted armies of book lovers into online buyers.

But the much more elusive brick-and-mortar quality has been the casual scan, where customers scout the aisles and get hit with impulse items at eye level. From the marketer’s perspective, these items were upsells the customer had never intended. Consumer surveys find that 85 percent of all purchases are made at the shelf, making impulse buys found money to retailers.

Far from resenting these tactics, many consumers embrace them, pointing to interesting products they’d never have thought to buy if they hadn’t gotten the nudge. Indeed, some shoppers enjoy the slow, relaxed browse-and the discovery of hidden treasures.

Theoretically, shoppers in a fully virtual 3D Second Life-like environment could get the same benefits.

The e-commerce potential of an environment in which linear restrictions do not apply is vast, according to Edward Bakhash, CEO of SpaceTime, a 3D e-commerce vendor, who argues that 3D e-commerce could change almost all the rules of retailing.

“Instead of sitting in front of a computer looking at thumbnail images, people will be flying through visual stacks of information,” Bakhash says.

On a practical level, this could shake up the search scene, too.

Today, few search responses beyond the top three or four on a Google page, for example, get much attention, given human bandwidth limits. In a 3D world, though, consumers could view and comprehend a far greater number of simultaneous responses. The potential result? Relevance and sales for companies that can only place 11th or 12th in conventional search results.

“The continuing trend of more powerful computers coupled with greater Internet throughput will enable computer users to visualize more Web pages at once and quickly browse to deeper locations in their search results,” Bakhash says. “Ultimately, 3D will act as an equalizer for all companies, creating a level playing field for companies small and large, so all compete in the same space. This is especially helpful to small shops that may not be fortunate enough to be in the top 10 search results in our current 2D world.”

Another aspect of 3D is its ability to put dimensions and shape into a more concrete context. A fully digitized depiction of a house interior, for example, could take the guesswork out of determining whether a washing machine or refrigerator or large-screen television would fit in the intended space. Home entertainment chain Tweeter is considering a practical use for 3D that still might take years to deploy.

Consider this scenario: A consumer shopping for a home entertainment system drags a 3D CAD/CAM representation of his home to a consumer electronics e-commerce site. This large digital file, however, is more than a mere architectural depiction of the customer’s home. It includes window placements and times of day-during each month-the sun shines through each window, at roughly what intensity and for how long. The customer enters the style and thickness of the rug and wall coverings and a database lookup has associated those with their likely sound-dampening characteristics.

In a surround-sound speaker purchase, the image depicts a light coming from each speaker, with a progressively lighter shade representing the weakening sound as it travels farther away from the speaker. That representation has been updated to factor in the acoustic properties of each room.

When the customer selects a time and date, the shopping site also approximates glare before suggesting placement of a monitor. Moving furniture around the room is a simple point-and-click.

Does this scenario drift toward science fiction? Maybe, but Mark Stearns, director of e-commerce for Tweeter, which has more than 2,400 employees in more than 100 stores in 18 states, thinks it might happen. After all, he’s paid to envision the future of home entertainment shopping.

The way most home entertainment shopping is done today has its pros and cons. Stores like Tweeter and Best Buy have demonstration rooms set up to showcase their equipment. The downside is that such rooms may be unrealistically created and might deliver a sound and visual show unlikely to be replicated in the typical consumer home. The upside is that no PC screen or speaker is likely to accurately depict how a high-resolution screen looks or what an expensive speaker will sound like. The only fair way to evaluate such equipment is with a room as close to identical to that consumer’s living room as possible.

That potentially could be done with a combination of the in-store and 3D Web experience, Stearns says.

How could that sophisticated representation of the consumer’s home be cost-effectively created? Tweeter already sends employees into customers’ homes. Once there, a digital camera could capture the core information about the rooms and their dimensions and window placement. A physical inspection-plus answers to a few questions by the homeowner-could fill in the missing pieces about carpet material, wall thickness and so on.

Presumably, the homeowner would be happy to help. From the retailer’s perspective, once such a digital representation is created, the customer would have a strong incentive to shop with that retailer, not only because of the personal service but because the purchase would ultimately be more accurate.

This would be especially useful as Tweeter doesn’t focus on the living room nearly as much as it does the entire house. “We’d have to be measuring out all the sonics in the whole house,” Stearns says.

Such shopping would also be practical. Which and how many cable connectors are required? Will the power cord reach the electrical outlet on the south wall? Is there enough room around the furniture and windows for optimum placement of surround-sound speakers? In short, 3D applications could take the guesswork out of buying and installing home entertainment systems, as well as home furnishings, decorating, renovations and more.

The question for pure e-tailers is whether consumers will be willing to so totally emerge themselves in a 3D e-commerce environment. The question for brick-and-mortar retailers is whether physical stores will be able to compete.