One of the big differences we hope to make with Webtogs, is in the way we display products on the site. There’s no doubt, that the more information a website provides, the better the conversion rate. There is also an emerging school of thought that says you can’t provide too much information.
What do I mean by information? Well, pictures, video, editor style reviews, customer reviews, features and benefits, technical details, etc. Take footwear for example, in addition to showing accurate size information on a pair of boots, it has to be good to show size specific feedback from customers. Zappos and more recently Endless do this, which I’m sure helps customers feel more secure about their impending purchase.
Now, I covered customer reviews in a previous post, so I won’t go on about that here. What I want to do now, is post in 2 parts. Part 1 (this one!) is about product photographs, and the ups and downs we’ve been through, in trying to get this done for webtogs.co.uk. Part 2, to follow shortly, will be about video, and how we see this playing a crucial role in displaying products on the site.
Types of image display
Most sites show a single view of a product, with the vast majority of these allowing a larger version of the same image. Other sites show multi-angle shots of product and even a 360 degree spinable (not sure that’s a word!) view.
Now the single image approach is ok, assuming your product looks almost the same from all angles and has no particular features that require highlighting. An example here would be a football or a frisbee. Just about anything else can benefit from multi angle images.
The 360 degree style displays are interesting. These are normally done on 1 axis, and made by taking multiple photographs and then stitching them together to form a seamless rotating view. To produce a full 3D image, that can be rotated on any axis, requires around 600 photos*, so it’s (a) time intensive and (b) a big ask for the customer to download, even on a broadband connection. Another option, is to model and texture the product in 3D (something we have quite a bit of previous experience with). This requires a fairly hefty investment in software and hardware to do well, but, with a talented operator, can be almost as quick as taking 5-600 images. We took this a stage further and, earlier this year, experimented with modeling a pack in 3D and then exporting it as a 3D SWF object, meaning it would be Vector and play back via the flash plugin. The theory here was we could achieve 90% of the quality, as compared to an image, for 20% of the file size. As it turned out, this simply isn’t true. The files were huge, running to 4-5 MB and the quality was nothing like as good as an image. For the more technically minded, we were using both Maya and Softimage XSI, with eRain’s SWF export plugin. I still believe that this is possible, but in the time we had, we couldn’t make it work.
We remain to be conviced how well the 360 deg approach increases conversions. Some of the stats we’ve looked at, suggest that a large percentage of customers don’t bother to download the image in the first place, and those that do, find it a frustratingly slow process. In our minds, video can achieve a better result for a fraction of the cost (but more on that in part 2).
The other trick used with product images, is the image zoom effect. This normally involves moving your mouse over an image in one view, seeing a real time zoomed version in another view. We call this the ‘gynecologists view’. Whilst we have no data to support our view, we don’t like this approach. The technical merit is obvious, as it allows a very large image to be viewed on a relatively small screen. But, in our minds, there’s something that leaves you feeling less than satisfied. I think it’s because you can see close up detail, but you don’t get an overall large view of the object. It, somehow, seems disjointed. It’s also very interesting to watch older people use these features. They just don’t ‘get’ it in the same way a more net savvy person does. Our test group (all over 55), nearly all wanted to ‘just see a bigger picture’.
So, for now, we are going to show multi-angle photos of our products, with a click through to a larger version. In time, we will add other methods to some product pages, and measure the impact on conversion.
Getting the product to shoot
Well, before you begin to think about setting up a studio and snapping away, you need to get your hands on stuff to photograph. We’ve found this to be a fairly interesting process!. We are now in the position where we have opened trade accounts with around 40 brands for launch. Not one of the brands we are stocking can supply anything more than a single product image, taken from one angle. So, we have to take our own. We spoke with most of the brands and requested sample product to shoot. Now, around 5 of the brands, said “no problem” and sent us gear to photograph. It gets booked to our account and then refunded, when we send it back. Simple. Another few replied and said, “no problem” and then sent us pre-production samples, most of which differed in some way to the actual product we would sell. Not so helpful!, as we can’t shoot these. When you look at the schedules the brands work to, in terms of getting product made, it actually makes sense, but it never occurred to us, that this would happen!
The remaining brands all came back with differing replies. Some simply said “Why do you need samples, just shoot the gear you buy to stock”, well this is fine, except they are (a) new and (b) covered in tags, labels, etc.
Some brands sent us samples of gear, that we hadn’t agreed to stock. Others sent gear that was for next season, so not relevant for our launch, etc. The point I’m making here, is we, naively, thought this would be the easy part. In reality, we were nothing like prepared enough and started the process far too late. It’s very easy to blame the brands for being disorganised here. But actually, this is mainly our fault. Outdoor is not an industry that fully understands or supports Internet retail yet. They also work to very tight deadlines for production and don’t have masses of stock kicking around that they can send out for us to play with and then send back, as they can’t then sell this as new.
Taking the pictures
Now, I’m not a photographer, and have never got involved in product photography until now. Luckily my wife is (although she might not be my wife for much longer when she realises how many products we have to shoot!) and is doing an amazing job with our products.
Here’s a look at the setup we have put together:
That’s Adam in the middle! Below is a standard test shot that we take for every product. The calibration card is then used as reference in Aperture on the Mac, to help get the colour correction accurate.
After colour correction and some editing in Photoshop to remove any background elements and visible parts of Adam our mannequin, we end up with this:
Now, as you might imagine, it takes about 10-15 minutes, in total, to get this right and ready for upload to the website. So, if you multiply 15 minutes, by the number of images on the main webtogs site, it’s quite a time commitment to do your own photography, to say nothing of between 4 and 7 angle shots per product.
Thankfully, our image up-loader is relatively clever (thanks to Dimitar, our resident code ninja), and takes one large image, and scales it down, generating all the various thumbnails and smaller views we need for the site, on the fly. This process is also non-destructive, so we can change the compression settings or output sizes used and re-run the process, without destroying the original, uncompressed image.
We’d be really interested to hear from any other people who’ve been through the same kind of process, for one thing, we still haven’t found a good way of supporting the hoods on jackets. We currently use the ‘Mat Collis Cardboard Conversion Kit’ (patent pending!), which works ok, but is a real hassle to take out in Photoshop afterwards… A large pint of beer is waiting for the answer to this and many other product photography issues!
Well, we’ve done it. I still can’t quite believe that webtogs.co.uk is live. The last 6 weeks was a blur of frenzied activity, with a million things to do, never enough time and certainly not enough sleep!
Now, I’ve worked on some fairly big rollouts in my time (far bigger than this, to be honest), but ultimate responsibility for everything has never rested on my shoulders before. Needless to say, i have a new found respect for the project owners Iâ€™ve worked for in the past.
So what did we learn from the launch? Well, for one thing, you can’t be over prepared. There were so many little things that got left to the last minute, mainly surrounding content for the site, product entry and tagging for on site search and SEO. Looking back, these things should have been done weeks before launch, in parallel with the hundreds of bug fixes and design issues that were dealt with in the run up to launch.
The human side to all this is a different, but equally interesting, angle to consider. We’re all professionals, after all, so things must have gone smoothly? The reality is far from this. Even though we’ve worked together and been friends for over 10 years, the Webtogs team got very frayed towards the end. Tempers were short, with arguments breaking out over silly little things. However, the site going live had an immediate calming effect. I’ve never seen us all so happy!
In terms of features, the launch version is not even half way there. There is much left to do and we are determined to remain focused on providing the best user experience we can to our customers (as I write this, we do actually now have customers, which surprised me, for a 4 day old site!). So many issues are left to tackle, including customer and editor reviews, product videos, enhanced image display, product comparison, the list goes on…
So what are we happy with? Well, the short answer is not much! I really like the multi angle photography we’ve done, especially for sleeping bags and jackets. I think the basket / checkout process is a nice foundation for us to build on. I notice that Amazon recently lost the patent for 1-click, so that’s something of interest for us…
And the blog? Well, we’ve been slack on posting over the last few weeks, in the rush to get the site ready for launch. We will correct this moving forwards. You’ll also start to see the odd product related post appear, as we try out new gear we’re interested in.
A naieve person could say that Gore’s new breathable fabric is a lightyear step forward in fabric that truly makes your time out on the mountain a more comfortable experience. Likewise a cynical person might rate gore tex’s new fabric as a chance for lots of differernt manufacturers and gore tex themselves to make a load more money by having everyone replacing all their hard shells!
Me I’m undecided right now. I’ve always personally found that eVent is the better fabric for good old blighty being both more breathable in damp conditions wheras goretex always seems to do better in dry cold conditions. As blighty seems to be dampness personified this year though, you can guess where my feeling lie right now. However, I am looking forward to trying the new pro-shell out, particuarly the three ply fabric so watch this space for further updates.
A lot of the magasines have had reviews recently and all seems to be positive so far, but I’m keen to talk to people who have used them in anger so to speak. Has anyone reading this actually used it out and about as yet? Any thoughts on the new material?
On a side note, had a super week away back up in the Peak District, visiting amongst many places the village of Eyam. Just the sort of weather I love for walking, slightly cold and overcast with a faint hit of drizzle in the air.
I might be mad, but I like my walking weather to be a bit grim. If it was all blue skies, we would be darn bored every time we are out on the hill. Suffice to say some lovely views and strolls were had, along with the fascinating history of Eyam to find out about…….
Well, happy days, Keen one of our favorite brands, have given us a leg up with some great press in the Mail on Sunday. The MOS are running a piece on the new super cool Keen snoqualmie winter boot, during November. Webtogs are the featured supplier, which is great.
This is really great for Webtogs, but puts us under pressure to get the site live and ready for customers. With that in mind, we are on target to launch the site on or around November 5th.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about how we’re going to handle customers leaving product reviews on webtogs.co.uk.
Originally we’d decided to build our own reviews engine and encourage customers to leave reviews via the usual method of enticements. There’s no doubt that on page product reviews increase conversions, as customers get one step closer to being reassured enough to buy.
This DIY approach, however, has some disadvantages. For a start, there’s the whole trust issue. With high profile stories surrounding sites like trip advisor, more net savvy consumers are beginning to distrust reviews. It’s also a hard area to get right. Enticing users to leave reviews, without offering them the earth, is a science in itself and best practice on this is hard to come by. The other big issue, for a start up like us, is the content (or lack of it). Until your site builds enough momentum to get reviews you tend to have loads of product pages, with “Be the first person to review this item” on the page. What’s interesting here, is that, statistically, people are far more likely to write the 3rd or 4th review, than they are the first.
Bearing this in mind, we’ve looked at out-sourcing this piece of the site to another company. After a bit of thought, we narrowed it down to Reevoo and Bazzar Voice. We met the relevant people from both companies a few days ago and chewed the fat on the whole reviews issue.
Reevoo’s offering is straight forward in its aims. They feel the ‘trusted mark’ side of things is critically important to get right, and offer a co-branded approach, where ‘Reevoo reviews’ sit on the product page. They only contact customers who have made a purchase from our site, and have good conversion rates at getting review content. Once they have the raw review data, they manually (i.e. a human being) edit it, removing all reference to the retailer, price and any unwanted content (bad language, racial comments, etc). The ‘clean’ review is the posted on our site. It’s also posted on other retailerâ€™s sites that occupy a similar space. This sharing of review data is actually quite a benefit to a start-up, as we gain more than we lose, in terms of populating our product pages with reviews. The downside to this shared approach, is ownership. Should we end our relationship with Reevoo, we lose the review content they have collected on our behalf.
The data that is stripped from the raw reviews is still kept, and provided to us in a private manner, allowing us to deal with any customer service issues, that affect our performance as a retailer, rather than the quality of the product itself.
Bazzar Voice, on the other hand, have a different approach. They operate on a total ‘white label’ basis. Their review engine is integrated into our site, with no mention of their brand. From the customers perspective, it’s all Webtogs. They provide some very well researched best practice on gathering review content, mainly via email, and offer a similar manual data cleaning service.
Bazzar Voice also provide private access to comments relating to our service, but don’t provide the shared reviews side of things, so all content that we display will have been collected solely from our customers. Most importantly, they hand over all review content to us, should we part company in the future.
In terms of technology, the Bazzar Voice offering is further ahead than Reevoo, mainly in terms of site integration (site search on top rated, most popular products, etc), but, to be honest, thereâ€™s not much to differentiate the core offerings of each company, beyond what I’ve discussed here.
As for cost, both companies are very similar in price. They both charge a fixed monthly fee for their service, based on the amount of review content they have to process (which is largely based on site traffic). We havenâ€™t yet got to the ‘fine print’ level with either company, but guide quotes at this stage are around the Â£40,000.00 per year mark, for a company such as ours, with conservative traffic projections. I dare say a larger company, with higher levels of traffic, would pay a bit more. On first glance, this seems like a lot of money. But when we sat down and looked at what it would cost us to do this in-house, it starts to make more sense. The nice thing about both companies is they are pro-active in providing tools that identify the ROI their respective services produce. Comparing the conversion of customers who have clicked on a review, against those that havenâ€™t, after all, is a fairly easy thing to do.
We’re still undecided on the way to go. One of the big questions for us, is the ‘trusted mark’ concept. How important is this? I’d love to hear what you think about this.
Well, things were going so well! Then we got this letter from Barclays merchant services, in response to our application for a merchant account (this is a separate account, run by the bank, to receive payments from credit and debit cards).
Now, as you can see, they have accepted our application, with one provision, deferred settlement for 30 days, post each payment. They go on to say that they will (kindly) review this in 12 months for us. This, apparently, is a ‘security measure’.
So, each time a customer buys something from our website, their money will be credited to our merchant account with Barclays. They will then sit on this money (paying us no interest, I suspect), for 30 days. We then get the money credited to our bank account, 3 days after that (nice touch, i thought, the extra 3 days).
Now, for any young company (actually any company), cash-flow is king. Retail is all about getting the money in from your customers on a percentage of the stock you have bought, before you pay your suppliers. Most trade accounts with suppliers work on 30 day terms.
As a brand new retailer, Webtogs has no trade references to give to suppliers, so many are asking us to pay ‘pro-forma’ for our first few orders. This essentially means we pay up front for our stock. Now we expected this, and had factored it into our cash-flow forecasts. What we had not expected, was to be squeezed at the other end, by the bank.
I did some quick excel work on how this would affect our cash-flow in the first 12 months. The results are staggering. It creates a net shortfall of roughly Â£40,000.00 in our first year, as compared with the 3 day settlement model.
Why? you may ask. Well, we’re an aggressive company with big plans. We are aiming to turnover (on a forward basis) Â£400k by the end of year 1. This requires a fairly steep acceleration of month on month sales from the website to achieve. The additional cost (in cash-flow terms) of this ‘minor item’, means we will have to fund stock purchase from our cash reserves, rather than use direct revenue. As the growth is steep, we never get a catch-up period, as each new month requires a larger stock purchase, than the last. So, the more revenue the site generates from sales, each month, the worse this gets as we have to buy ever increasing amounts of stock to service the continuing growth.
The other item to note, is the requirement for ‘audited’ accounts at the 12 month point. Companies house classify companies as either ‘Small’, ‘Medium’ or ‘Normal’. Small companies get several forms of reporting relief when filing accounts, in terms of the information they have to supply and the need to supply audited accounts. A small company is one that meets several criteria, but the main one being a turnover of Â£5.6M or less. Now we have big plans, but Â£5.6M is pushing it a bit for the first year! So, as a small company, Webtogs doesn’t need to get it’s accounts audited. This is a good thing, as a formal audit is roughly 4 times the price of getting standard accounts prepared. The bank requiring and audit, therefore, just cost us another bunch of unnecessary cash.
So, happy days! We’re trying everything we can to change the terms of the deal with Barclays, and I had an encouraging chat with a local business manager recently, who hopes we can come to an alternative arrangement.