3-D reality on the Web

Although 3-D imagery may sound like science fiction, some catalogers, including Lands’ End, Nordstrom, and The Sharper Image, are adding 3-D enhancements to their Websites to boost online sales.

Women’s apparel marketers are among those most likely to benefit from 3-D technology. To order apparel online with ease, shoppers want to see the hang and fit of garments and the texture and details of fabrics. Standard online technology doesn’t allow for such visual detail-and as a result, online apparel sales are minuscule.

While women’s apparel continues to be the most dominant product category among print catalogs, that’s far from the case online. Among respondents to Catalog Age’s 1999 Consumer Catalog Shopping Survey, 64% of catalog shoppers buy womens’ apparel via print catalogs, but only 15% of online shoppers buy women’s clothing over the Web. The National Retail Federation reports that U.S. women’s apparel sales totaled $169 billion in 1997-of which less than $90 million (.05%) was attributed to e-commerce.

Dodgeville, WI-based cataloger Lands’ End has turned to 3-D imagery to boost its apparel sales. Last November it launched Your Personal Model, which allows customers to create a computerized 3-D model of themselves based on coloring, height, and body measurements. “In the past year, we’ve seen a large increase in the number of women shopping on our Website. In fact, in December, our women’s apparel sold online equaled men’s apparel for the first time,” says spokesman Thane Ryland. “The 3-D shopping aid truly drives the electronic presentation of our products.”

Apparel merchants and fit experts at $1.3 billion Lands’ End worked with graphic artists at Public Technologies Multimedia, an interactive agency in Quebec, to create the Your Personal Model feature. Every detail of each garment, from the drape of the fabric to the number of buttons, was examined and incorporated into the program. As a result, if a woman is high-waisted and has broad shoulders, the blouse as shown on the model will be a bit more open at the neck and more fitted through the sleeves and at the waist than it would be on a model for a low-waisted, narrow-shouldered woman.

All Personal Model information, such as shoulder, waist, and height measurements, is stored in an account for the customer, who does not need to download plug-ins to view the model. To date, Lands’ End has created more than 100,000 Personal Models accounts on its Website.

Another approach Nordstrom began testing 3-D technology on its Website this spring. Limiting the feature to a mini-Website promoting its Fade to White spring fashion campaign, the Internet division of the apparel cataloger/retailer has taken a somewhat different approach from Lands’ End.

Working with Venice, CA-based Website developer 3Dshopping.com, the $5 billion Nordstrom uses pictures of models to provide visitors with a 360-degree view of products, created by continuously linking individual photographs in a fully rotational format. Online consumers can also click on specific color selections, zoom in on texture enhancements, and examine how the clothing fits on real people. The proprietary technology uses Java applications but does not use video-streaming or require plug-ins; it works on all Internet speeds and is compatible with most Web browsers.

Although Nordstrom is still evaluating response to the 3-D technology, “we’re pleased with the results and feedback from the test,” says Bob Schwartz, general manager of Nordstrom.com. “Over the next few months, we hope to test the technology on additional Web subsites.”

“Three-dimensional technology makes sense for apparel marketers,” says Ken Cassar, an analyst with online marketing research firm Jupiter Communication’s Digital Commerce Group. “Catalogers have trained customers to accept two-dimensional imagery in print catalogs, but 3-D imagery represents the real potential of the Internet.”

Cassar notes that while the technology works well on a T-1 line, it’s still a bit jagged and slow when running via the typical 28.8 modem. “But catalogers need to start developing the expertise now to take full advantage of the Internet when bandwidth arrives,” he says.

Not limited to apparel Of course, 3-D technology can also enhance nonapparel catalogers’ Websites. In February, high-tech gadgetry cataloger/retailer The Sharper Image added 3-D as well as audio enhancements to 25 of its best-selling products, such as the company’s proprietary CD Soother Alarm and Powertower CD Holder. Visitors to the Sharper Image Website can view products in 3-D, rotate, zoom in and out, and open and close the product. The technology works on all computers, but customers must download MacroMedia’s Shockwave technology (available on The Sharper Image site) and the plug-in Spike, a 3-D product from Shells Interactive.

“We’re interested in being a showcase for new technology,” says Greg Alexander, Sharper Image’s senior vice president of MIS. “It gives the customer a way to experience the product as close to reality as possible without having to go to a store.” Even though Alexander won’t disclose how much the technology cost the company, he contends it was well worth the investment. And without giving sales results, he notes that the company has “seen a definite increase in sales since offering the feature.”