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Why 3D Shopping Makes No Sense

Friday, October 20, 2000
by Mark Hurst

One definition of insanity, I've heard, is making the same mistake again and again. If that's true, it's time to pull out a straitjacket for the e-commerce industry. Despite repeated findings that e-commerce customers want a simpler on-site experience, e-tailers continue to invest in more and more high-tech gewgaws for their sites.

Case in point: Erin Joyce's October 3 AtNewYork piece about 3D technology in online shopping. Joyce reports that retailers like Eddie Bauer and Sharper Image are investing in technology to allow their e-commerce customers to view products in 3D. (Or at least, products spin around on the screen so that customers can see them from all angles.) This is a huge investment for those e-tailers, expensive enough that it undoubtedly comes at the expense of fixes for other problems in the customer experience. So the question is, why 3D?

One argument given by e-tailers (in Joyce's and other articles) is that 3D technology was always too slow for consumer dialup modems. But now that 3D vendors have better compression technology, and some customers are getting online with faster modems, it finally makes sense to put 3D on the sites.

The obvious error in this argument is that it is centered on the technology. The sites are implementing a feature just because they can. Customers' needs play no part in the decision. Successful e-commerce sites, on the contrary, understand that making a good experience for the customer -- not for the technology vendor -- is the ultimate e-business goal.

The argument also implies that improved bandwidth now makes 3D an easy experience for customers. That's also untrue. The 3D experience is still slow, and it may come only after a confusing plug-in installation process.

For example, at the request of one 3D vendor, I tried out the 3D shopping feature for Manolo Blahnik shoes on Over a 56k dialup, the experience was slow; definitely faster than the doomed VRML was a couple of years back, but still much slower than an everyday 2D website. A bigger problem came during the installation process. Installing the 3D plug-in took me through a series of complex installation screens that would be nearly impossible for anyone but the rare Windows-savvy customer. (Mac users aren't even allowed into the page.)

Another argument for 3D is that it helps reduce merchandise returns. If customers could view the product more clearly, the thinking goes, it's less likely that they'd choose the wrong product and then mail it back later. Once again I disagree. Manolo Blahnik's 3D shoes displayed nothing that I couldn't see on a regular website with a couple of extra product images. Manolo Blahnik's images were just as small and blocky as what I'd get on a regular, non-3D website. The only difference is that I had to install a plug-in and wait extra time to see it all. Oh yeah, and the shoes were spinning. Whee.

So I return again to the question: Why 3D? Since all of the technocentric arguments ring false, I'd prefer a different way to frame the question.

What do customers want?

That is, instead of concocting vague excuses why the flashy and pretty technology is so nice, we should start with the customer. We should ask, positively, what actually makes sense for customers, and then attempt to implement that vision.

It so happens that just when Erin Joyce's article came out, Creative Good was finishing a comprehensive study of what customers want in e-commerce. ("Holiday 2000 E-Commerce" is now available -- free PDF download here.) We ran over 50 consumer tests on eight major e-tail sites and drew several conclusions about why customers succeed and fail in the buying process.

If you can believe it, over 40% of buying attempts failed in our tests. This is an astonishingly high failure rate, and single biggest culprit was the humble checkout process. E-tailers made dumb mistakes like inadvertently encouraging new customers to log in (and thus get an error message) before giving the site their money. In fact, the Neiman Marcus site -- which invested untold amounts to install 3D technology -- contains this very error. While few customers are likely to use the high-tech 3D whirligig, the entire Neiman Marcus site might lose 10% of its potential sales because of that one error in the checkout process.

So that's the real story. Companies are investing in 3D, at best a risky investment with little or no short-term upside, instead of getting substantial and immediate revenue gains from fixing more important (albeit less flashy) areas of the site.

For what it's worth, Creative Good said much the same thing a year ago in our 1999 e-commerce report. Yet the failure rate in this year's tests was HIGHER than it was last year. The e-commerce industry is making the same mistakes again and again. Where's that straitjacket?

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