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Net Prophet - by Dylan Tweney

April 27, 1998

Online catalogs are missing the point

Most Internet commerce sites to date look a lot like electronic versions of paper catalogs. Site visitors look at an index or table of contents, select the categories they're interested in, then browse through pages of product descriptions with lots of text and a few small pictures.

These online catalogs are missing the point.

You see, a paper catalog is easy to browse. Flipping through the J. Crew catalog, I can scan dozens of pictures in just a few seconds. In a single glance, I can take in a two-page spread representing ten or fifteen different products. If something catches my eye, I can instantly zero in on it to examine its details, or turn to the page where a product description can be found.

In other words, the experience of browsing a paper catalog starts with the pictures, and then proceeds to the text.

It's exactly the opposite on the Web. Because of bandwidth limitations (most consumers are still accessing the Web via 33.6Kbps modems or slower) pictures take a long time to appear on a Web page. The more detailed the picture, the longer its download time. As a result, Web page designers must use images sparingly and strategically.

They compensate for these image constraints by using clever layouts, words, and links designed to entice you to click on them. If you see a product description that interests you, you may click on a text link to see a detailed picture, which is just the reverse of how you read a paper catalog.

But many Web commerce sites haven't figured out the fundamental differences between paper pages and Web pages yet. As a result, too many sites look like paper catalogs -- and not very attractive ones, at that.

The user attitude differs between paper catalogs and Web sites, too. Catalogs delivered via snail mail arrive on your doorstep whether you want them or not. You may immediately recycle them, or you may let them pile up on the kitchen table, as I do. If I flip through a paper catalog it's most likely because I'm bored, or at best mildly interested in its contents. Designers of paper catalogs use a variety of tricks to increase this interest and try to turn it into sales.

On the Web, by contrast, you won't even see a commerce site unless you deliberately go to it. For the site's builders, that means their customers are already interested to some degree in what the site has to offer. But Web designers need a different set of tricks to close sales with these customers.

Beyond electronic paper

Taking advantage of the Web means offering customers experiences that will draw them in and entice them to interact with your site.

One of the most powerful tools for doing that is through an online auction. Attracted by the chance to buy something for much less than its regular price, many customers will be sucked into an online round of bidding. That keeps them on the site for longer and lets the site's creators expose them to additional merchandise and marketing messages. What's more, it's an exciting and entertaining experience for the customer.

Other kinds of event-based selling are also possible. You could tie special sale prices to quizzes, offering a discount to customers who answer three out of four questions correctly. You could create online competitions where customers play games against one another, competing for prizes. Or you could create an online community where customers can interact with one another, and sell products or deliver brand messages alongside the community space.

Unfortunately, the leading entry-level Web commerce software products, such as Intershop, iCat, and Cat@log, all emphasize the catalog metaphor. These products are all right for a first foray into I-commerce. But once you're ready to start taking advantage of the new medium and all it has to offer, you'll need other, more sophisticated tools -- and you may have to build them yourself.

How are you taking advantage of the Web to turn browsers into buyers? Write to me at dylan@infoworld.com.

Dylan Tweney edits InfoWorld's intranet and I-commerce reviews section, online and in print.

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