Your choice: dynamic or static

In the fast-paced world of online shopping, time is one luxury catalogers and consumers don’t have. Luckily, a new generation of technology enables online marketers to build “dynamic,” or data-driven, catalogs instead of the traditional “static” ones. Not only are dynamic catalogs more flexible than conventional Web catalogs, but they’re also easier to maintain and more cost-effective than conventional Web catalogs. Moreover, dynamiccatalogs allow marketers to add features such as gift registries, order tracking , and real-time inventory to make shopping more convenient.

“The power of a dynamic catalog is that you can change one line in the database and the catalog is updated automatically,” says Eric Schmidt, president/CEO of n-Commerce, an Amesbury, MA, developer of dynamic catalogs and secure ordering products.

Dynamic catalog pages are also built on the fly-meaning they are created when a customer makes a request or performs a certain function, such as searching or ordering. The catalog filters through the site for specific requests, and returns customized information in preset page templates.

How it works Think of static catalogs-Websites built using hyper-text markup language (HTML) pages in which a set of codes links a page to sets of coded links on other pages-as word-processing files that sit on a server. Every catalog Web page, from the home page to individual product pages to the ordering page, is in effect a separate file. The number of Web pages can vary from as few as two to thousands for large business-to-business catalogs that use detailed product information.

Because a static catalog is a series of separate links, updating product and pricing information and changing design and navigation require an employee to change every page-one by one-on which a particular product appears. Let’s say that a cataloger whose Website sells 100 products displays the product photos on the right-hand side of each product page. The cataloger then decides to switch all product shots to the left side. A static catalog requires that all 100 product pages be changed-a process that could take days, or even weeks.

But dynamic catalogs are built from a series of customized text-and-graphics templates-sets of guides that tell designers how to format the data-that are integrated into the company’s product database. Now the cataloger can add product information or delete outdated material without reindexing the entire database.

Say a gardening cataloger decides to put its terra cotta flowerpots on sale via its Website. Instead of individually changing the price on every page on which the product is mentioned, the cataloger need only change the price once within the database; the software then updates the price of that item on every page.

Another hallmark of the dynamic Web catalog is that the software creates pages only as needed: Not until a customer clicks on, say, the “terra cotta pots” selection on the home page will the software create for her the catalog page displaying the selection of terra cotta pots. The dynamic catalog can filter through the entire Website for the specific request in less time than a static catalog’s software can respond to a consumer clicking on a series of hypertext links. “Dynamic catalogs are a whole new paradigm,” says Ken Burke, CEO of Multimedia Live, a Website developer in Novato, CA. “Catalogers are essentially starting over.”

Making the switch Building a dynamic catalog can cost you as little as $25,000; average costs are $50,000-$100,000. The number of products on a site is irrelevant, as long as the information is in the database. “For the most part it costs just as much to include 50 products as it does to include 5,000,” says Burke. “The only cost is to scan the image if needed.”

To make the switch from static to dynamic, you need software with dynamic capability to integrate the product database into the site and to redesign your Web pages directly onto the templates, without the static HTML code, which doesn’t work in a dynamic environment. Vendors such as n-Commerce, iCat, IBM, and Intershop have built Website-developing tools with dynamic capability. (Many catalogers opt to hire an interactive agency or to allow their MIS department to build the online catalog.) Once the database is integrated into the Website, creating and filling in the templates are reportedly relatively simple.

When upscale home products cataloger Frontgate decided to add online ordering to its informational Website (www.frontgate.com) in August, it chose to build a dynamic catalog. Now that customers in essence create customized e-catalogs as they move through the Website, they no longer have to wait for navigation icons to reload. “Dynamic catalogs lead to more stable, robust, and consistent online shopping experiences,” says Greg Berglund, vice president of marketing for the Lebanon, OH-based catalog. “It allows for more sophisticated navigation methodology, which helps the online customer.”

And less frustration for the customer also means less frustration for Frontgate, which offers 450 products on roughly 200 Web pages. “The pitfall of a static commerce Website is the maintainability,” Berglund says. “With a dynamic catalog, I don’t have to think about having to change each page on which a product is mentioned to make sure it’s in sync.” That’s important, he adds, when you consider that changing the product description also requires changing the navigation on every page that sells the product, as well as on every page on which Frontgate cross-sells that product. “That’s three spots right there that we have to change manually,” Berglund says, adding that if the product is mentioned on 10 pages, that could mean as many as 30 manual changes.

Ironically, the drawback to dynamic catalogs, Berglund says, is what many consider a primary strength: the creative flexibility. Because catalogers must now create a variety of templates to keep users interested, “we have to prethink all the ways we want to present products creatively, making it a more rigid process,” he says.

But many Web marketers believe the pluses of dynamic Web page design far outweigh the increased creative demands. In fact, they indicate that this new technology is fast becoming a necessity in staying competitive in the e-commerce world. Burke, for one, says he won’t consider taking on clients unless they agree to build dynamic e-commerce sites. “I couldn’t give clients the value-added features needed to be successful in this environment without a dynamic catalog.”

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