When eBay and Amazon were founded, in 1995, ecommerce pioneers worried that pictures of products would never provide the same experience as handling a product on a rack. Looking at a pixelated shirt on-screen was not as rich as the experience of holding it in a physical store.
Ecommerce has generally overcome this challenge, but there are still products that are more difficult to present online. Oftentimes these products are personalized, custom, or semi-custom. For these items, the ultimate solution may be virtual photography, three-dimensional models, and configurators.
Too Many Options
“We have three physical stores. One in New York. One in Washington, D.C. One in New Haven, Connecticut. In each, we have custom options for customers to order — anything from tailored clothing to dress shirts,” said Isaac Metlitsky, the senior manager of web and digital at J. Press, during a live interview for CommerceCo by Practical Ecommerce on April 15, 2021. The event also featured Marc Uible, the vice president of marketing at Threekit, which helps companies customize products in 3D, augmented reality, and virtual photography.
One category of products that J. Press offers is made-to-order dress shirts. The shirts have a set of standard collars —button-down, point, spread. They come in standard sizes. There are two cuff options and three available pocket styles — and about 70 fabric choices.
Thus the made-to-order dress shirt is available in 1,260 configurations, not including sizes.
Set aside how any company would manage more than 1,000 product variations from a manufacturing and inventory standpoint, and ask yourself how you would present those options to a shopper online.
“Before we launched this project with Threekit, we didn’t even attempt to do it online because it was something that…needed to be done in-store, where the customer would be able to feel the fabrics, look at the options, and have a better idea what it looks like,” said Metlitsky.
He continued, “But you have the same problem in-store [as online]. You don’t really know what end result is going to look like.”
The challenge is that even standing in a posh shirt shop holding a fabric swatch book against a white spread-collar example shirt still requires imagination on the shopper’s part.
Again, these shirts are made-to-order. The physical store does not have the 1,260 variations available in stock in even one size. There is still a disconnect between what the customer is ordering and what he is seeing.
“Ultimately, being able to present [the shirts] online to a customer that’s shopping online or even in-store — so he can actually see what the end result looks like — is a great feat,” Metlitsky said, adding that it is not uncommon for sales associates at J. Press to use a tablet with the shirt configurator as a tool for consumers in the physical shop.
Crate & Barrel
Custom shirts are not alone in this challenge. Made-to-order furniture has the issue, too.
“I recently bought a sectional couch from Crate & Barrel,” said Threekit’s Uible, adding that all of the sectionals on the Crate & Barrel website were virtual photography, similar to the J. Press shirt configurator.
“So I’m in the store. I love the sectional. Then the sales associate comes over with a fabric swatch. There are 50 or 60 fabrics that we’re putting up against the couch. That doesn’t provide a very good impression of what it’s going to look like,” said Threekit’s Uible.
In both examples, J. Press and Crate & Barrel, the online configurator provides a better representation of the final product than an in-store experience.
Perhaps the takeaway is that in-store and online shopping experiences are different, but one is not necessarily better.
Rather, what the eBay and Amazon pioneers missed was that online and in-store experiences are parts of a larger process. We now know that they can work together.
There’s room for pure ecommerce operations, in-store-only boutiques, and omnichannel sellers.