THE LOWDOWN ON ONLINE COLOR ACCURACY TOOLS

Apr 01, 2001 9:30 PM  By

Sun-drenched color is part and parcel of the Venus Swimwear brand. The Jacksonville, FL-based cataloger is known among customers for its bright swimsuit fabrics saturated in hot pink, canary yellow, deep purple, tropical orange, and other vivid hues.

The company goes to great lengths to ensure faithful color reproduction in its catalog, starting with the fabrics it chooses. Even a beautiful fabric will be rejected if the colors — fluorescents, for example — will be too challenging to reproduce accurately in print.

Next, Venus photographs all of its suits outdoors, using a mix of sunlight and fill light, and puts the images through two phases of color correction. Finally, for good measure, the Venus catalog includes a note to customers explaining the technical challenge of accurately reproducing color in print and stating that, in some cases, “your swimwear will be brighter and more vibrant than those shown on these pages.”

So when it came to selling on the Web, Venus was intent on giving online shoppers the same faithful reproductions. That’s why it became an early adopter of an online color accuracy tool that enables Web shoppers to calibrate their monitors for what-you-see-is-what-you-get product images.

“We felt that color was something that, in any way, shape, or form, we needed to get across to our Web customers as well as we do to our direct mail customers,” explains Rich Atlas, director of direct mail and e-commerce marketing at Venus. “Swimwear is essentially an undergarment that is worn outside. It has to be flattering, and color is absolutely key to that.”

Venus selected San Francisco-based E-Color’s True Internet Color, one of several new online tools designed to increase Web shoppers’ confidence in the colors they see onscreen. Imation Corp., based in Oakdale, MN, last year announced Web-based color-correction software dubbed Verifi, and Carlstadt, NJ-based Pantone expects to release a competing product later this year, tentatively called Internet Calibration Servlet. (For product details, see “Vendor Sampler,” page s10.) Imaging Technologies Corp. in San Diego last October announced ColorBlind-Web, but development has been delayed and a release date has not been set.

These tools aim to compensate for the wide range of variations in how different computer monitors display color. In the simplest terms, they collect information about a user’s monitor, graphics card, and other system specs and store the data in a cookie.

Both True Internet Color and Verifi require Web users to go through a one-time, multistep process to calibrate their monitors to work with the software. The tuneup process creates the cookie. Then, when shoppers request a product image, the software uses the data in the cookie to adjust the image in real-time for that individual’s system. Once that’s done, users will get color-corrected images at any site that uses the tools.

For online marketers that sell color-sensitive merchandise such as apparel, cosmetics, and home furnishings, online color accuracy tools may become a critical component of the shopping experience. After all, according to a 1999 study by CyberDialog Research, 60% of Internet shoppers do not trust the colors they see onscreen. Moreover, 30% have decided not to make a purchase because they doubted the onscreen color accuracy of an item, and 15% have returned merchandise purchased online because the color did not match their expectations based on what was displayed on their monitors.

At press time, E-Color was the only company with catalog customers that had implemented an online color-correction solution, but the market should heat up significantly this year. Both E-Color and Imation expected to make major customer announcements before the end of the first quarter. Pantone, preparing to make a big e-commerce market push this year, spun off its online color products into a separate division, TheRightColor, in January.

In fact, Evie Black Dykema, a senior analyst with the online retail practice at Cambridge, MA-based Forrester Research, expects online color accuracy tools to become an e-commerce standard by 2002. “The first time a consumer corrects her vision with glasses or contacts marks the end of her willingness to live in a blurry world,” she observed in a March 2000 report. “The same thing will be true once color correction hits the Web — people will wonder how they shopped before.”

Better color, better sales?

“We don’t sell color — we sell increased conversion rates,” says Peter Bernard, vice president of products and marketing at E-Color. According to a study the company conducted with apparel and home goods marketer Bloomingdales.com (an E-Color client) and research firm Buystream, Bloomingdales.com shoppers who had color-corrected their monitors were more than five times more likely to make a purchase in their initial visit to the site.

But in the above sentence, note the phrase “shoppers who had color-corrected their monitors.” Most of the tools require the users to reconfigure their monitors. True, the products don’t require browser plug-ins or software downloads. Nonetheless, those who Dykema in her report dubbed “mass-market technophobes — like people who can’t program the clocks on their VCRs,” may balk at fiddling with the knobs and settings of their machines.

Not surprisingly, Dave Veilleux, director of business development and marketing for Imation’s Verifi product line, stresses that since the technology is “noninvasive” and doesn’t incur perceived security risks — such as the chance of downloading a virus — consumers have few reasons to be leery of the technology.

“They’ll grasp the benefits and be willing to spend the one to two minutes to do the set-up,” he insists. “By year-end there will be a portion of the Internet population who expect to see color technology on Websites. If they frequently use a site that has it, they’ll start to expect it at the other sites they use, and when a site doesn’t have it, they may not trust what they see.”

Hedging bets

Nevertheless, Pantone and E-Color are hedging their bets with intermediate solutions that don’t require the user tuneup. While Pantone plans to release its online monitor calibration tool this year, the company so far has downplayed online solutions in favor of emphasizing its low-tech Color Shopping Guide and the Web development tool dubbed Swatch Generator.

“While doing color correction onscreen and calibrating the monitor is interesting and has value, we believe that users won’t calibrate their monitors,” says Andy Hatkoff, senior director of Pantone’s electronic color systems division. “The typical customer is not going to take the time. People don’t know where their monitor controls are, or they’re afraid to touch anything behind a panel on their computers.”

The Color Shopping Guide is a swatch book, akin to a paint-chip book, that contains samples of the colors in the Pantone Textile System, a color-coding system used by such merchants as Pottery Barn and Lands’ End that assigns a six-digit ID number to each color. The swatch book is a consumer version of the Pantone Color Specifier and Guide Set, a palette used by apparel and home-furnishings designers, merchandisers and product development managers to benchmark colors.

Online marketers distribute the swatch books to their customers, via direct sales or promotional giveaways, and use the Swatch Generator to add Pantone color-coding information to the product descriptions at their Websites. Hatkoff says merchants selling products that aren’t manufactured using Pantone textile shades can still benefit from this solution, since the Swatch Generator will come up with the closest Pantone match to the color in question.

The Swatch Generator also creates pop-up windows that show the Pantone colors under different lighting conditions, so that even shoppers who don’t have the Swatch Books can get different views of an item’s color. But having a swatch book in hand “takes the ambiguity out of ambient lighting,” and also “ties the virtual shopping experience with the brick-and-mortar operations,” Hatkoff notes. Pantone envisions that shoppers will take the swatch book with them when they go shopping, so if they are trying to find a pair of pants to match a shirt they purchased online, they’ll have the color guide to help them.

Home furnishings i.merchant MyMaison.com sells the Pantone Color Shopping Guide for $19.95 and has used the Swatch Generator for color-sensitive merchandise such as bedding and floor coverings. The site chose TheRightColor products instead of an online color-correction tool because it wanted to offer customers “intuitive tools,” says Linda Horowitz, vice president of business development and merchandising at New York-based Knowledge Strategies Group, which produces MyMaison.com.

“We wanted to give customers tools both online and offline to empower consumer purchasing and confidence,” Horowitz says. Since June 2000, the site has distributed about 2,000 swatch books.

For its part, E-Color acknowledges no doubts that consumers will ultimately embrace monitor calibration to increase color accuracy online. But in the meantime, the company was expected to announce after press time a new server-based product that will display color-corrected images without the user tuneup. Dubbed Optimal Color Value, the software will deliver precorrected images based on a lowest-common-denominator approach. By continually aggregating all the data it collects from users who go through the True Internet Color set-up, Optimal Color Value will display the best possible color match for all monitors.

“If shoppers go through the tuneup, they’ll get even more accurate color, but this is a way of giving every user of our customers’ Websites improved color,” Bernard says. E-Color also has struck a deal with Compaq Computer Corp. for the PC vendor to sell E-Color-branded monitors precalibrated to display optimal color matches at sites that use True Internet Color.

At Venus Swimwear, Atlas says the company will evaluate Optimal Color Value when it’s available. For now he’s focused on determining the ROI from True Internet Color, which costs the company about $1,500 a month. Venus only implemented the product this past summer, toward the end of its major selling season. The current selling season will mark Venus’s first sustained opportunity to determine the effectiveness of the tool.

While fit is the number-one reason for swimsuit returns, Atlas says, color accounts for 10%-12% of Venus’s catalog returns. Additionally, 40%-60% of visitors to the Venus site haven’t bought from the company before, so if color correction could convert a portion of those visitors, the ROI could be significant.

“Pick the wrong color swimsuit, and it could look awful on you, even if it fits,” Atlas says. “Anything we can do to make sure customers are seeing colors properly is worth a test.”

New York-based Leslie Goff has written for The New York Times and Computerworld, among other publications.