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Flash in the Online Plan

Flash in the Online Plan

Let Your Customers Customize

The success of stores such as Williams-Sonoma, with its cooking demonstrations, and Build-a-Bear Workshop - each of which engage customers in an activity or experience - underscores a truth in retailing that is just as important in the online world as it is in the brick-and-mortar world: The more fun, satisfying and easier you make it for people to do business with you, the richer your fortunes will be. One company that understands this concept and is applying it on its Web site is Timberland.

In August 2004, the New Hampshire-based boot-maker launched a product configurator on its Web site that let consumers customize one of its basic boots. The idea came from Timberland's supply chain organization, which, the previous year, had successfully developed the ability to mass-customize boots in its manufacturing facilities. The configurator was developed in HTML and moved consumers through the process of customizing their boot with pull-down menus. "We sold a lot of custom boots that way because people loved the product," says Brown. "But it wasn't an experience. It was like filling out an order form."

Instead, Brown wanted the configurator to give customers the sense that they were holding the boot and colour swatches in their hands. So Timberland hired Fluid, a Web design company, to help create a more interactive and more satisfying-to-use version of the configurator. The new configurator is an example of a Flash-based rich Internet application.

Now, when consumers click on the "Custom Boots" tab on Timberland.com's home page, they download the configurator application onto their computer (it takes about 10 seconds). Because the application resides on the user's computer, it's much faster than traditional Web applications, which require communication with a back-end Web server. In the HTML version, whenever a consumer clicked on a colour swatch, the Web page would go blank while it refreshed with the new image of the boot. Now, a person can drag her mouse over a colour swatch and the image of the boot changes instantly. Consumers can also click and drag their mouse across the image of the boot to change its orientation, as if they were turning the boot in their own hands.

"The configurator on our site today is far beyond anything we've had on our site [before]. It's an experience. You go in and play. You have fun. It's interactive and intuitive," says Brown. Consumers like it so much that as many as 1000 of them every day click the "Tell a Friend" feature on Timberland.com to bring the configurator to others' attention.

The configurator is more than just fun and games. It has created an important revenue stream, Brown says. The percentage of customers who buy boots after trying the configurator is quadruple the rate of purchases after the first version of the configurator. "That kind of lift is all related to the experience and interactivity," he says.

Bring the Store to the Customer

Another set of tools that makes the virtual shopping experience more engaging is audio and video. Multimedia technologies enable customers to view product demonstrations before they buy, much as they might in a brick-and-mortar store.

Auto auctioneer Manheim uses real-time audio and video to simulcast its used car auctions. The video feed shows the car that is in the auction lane and all the bidders onsite around the car raising their hands as they make their bids. The audio enables the remote bidder to hear the auctioneer make his calls so that the bidder can experience what's happening on the auction floor.

Manheim's VP and CIO, Joe Luppino, says simulcasting enables Manheim to reach a wider audience of potential buyers and makes it easier for buyers to participate in auctions since they don't have to travel to the auction site; buyers can bid in real time over the Internet. "Simulcasting offers online bidders the ability to attend more sales [virtually] than they'd be able to attend in one week, and it offers them the ability to [virtually] attend sales in multiple states in one day," says Luppino.

The more buyers Manheim can attract to its auctions, the happier the auctioneer makes its sellers. Since Manheim began simulcasting its auctions in 2002, approximately 3200 new dealers have come on board. Luppino adds that his company has seen buyers participate in sales in which they hadn't participated in the past.

When Manheim launched its simulcasts, the company knew it would have to create a realistic simulation of the auction environment so that dealers would believe watching the simulcast was as good as being in the room. So Manheim made a decision not to create an experience that would appeal to "the lowest common denominator", says Luppino. "We didn't want to build on dial-up because it would prohibit us from building features into our product that would make the simulcast more compelling," says Gordon Warren, VP and general manager of Manheim's dealer operating system, Tracker, who used to work on simulcasts. "We told our dealers: You have to have high-speed [Internet connections] or else you're going to have a miserable experience."

To simulate a live video feed, Manheim uses a codec, a piece of software that converts analog video signals into a digital format for transmission, in an MPEG file format. Luppino says codecs work by transmitting video stills in quick succession directly to the user's computer so that those stills look like they're moving - much like a cartoon. Manheim opted to use codecs instead of a live video stream because in an auction environment where every second counts, video streams often start and stop due to the number of people trying to access that stream at the same time. If the video were to suddenly stop because of the amount of traffic on Manheim.com, a buyer sitting at his computer might miss out on an opportunity to bid. The other advantage a codec holds over streaming video is that it doesn't have to be downloaded onto an individual's computer; the audio and video are served directly to users through the browser. And it's cheaper than live video because Manheim can transmit more broadcasts over smaller pipes.

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