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The perfect product listing

I'm not old, but I am older. My generation did not grow up with internet and social media and ecommerce. I still prefer being able to see and handle and try on the product I am looking to purchase, but it's getting harder each year to do so. Brick and mortar stores do not carry the kind of variety an ecommerce store is capable of. They are also carrying fewer of the more obscure items than they used to simply because it is becoming too expensive to devote shelf space to an item that doesn't move fast enough. Who can blame them.

It's frustrating to someone like me who looks for the convenience of on demand shopping, and the tactile feedback, of actual live shopping. To add to the frustration, many of the online stores have dropped the ball and are working with outdated selling models. Let me explain.

In the early days of online shopping the biggest draw was cheaper pricing compared to the brick and mortar stores, for obvious reasons. The savings were worth the hassle but, at that time, people were able to go to a brick and mortar store to actually handle a product, or at least something close to it. Back then an online retailer could get away with one product image and perhaps a couple of color swatches. Most of the time those images came from the manufacturer and were of questionable quality but it worked. For a while.

As online shopping became more popular and the range of items sold began to outnumber traditional outlets, this practice became difficult to maintain. You could find a wider variety of products online that simply were not available at the local stores. Specially out of season items. Yet, the same selling model was being used, that one or two images provided by the manufacturer or distributor and passed on to their resellers. Not a very good way of selling a product but there are a lot of cheap manufacturers and distributors who don't see, or maybe care, about the end part of the distribution line. Yes, they're out there.

The retailer, now having the burden of selling these products, either had to put pressure on upstream or provide their own photography, which, as you can imagine, is an enormous financial burden on smaller stores. However, there was one good thing that came from this pressure for better photography, a unified look and the birth of the "on white" product shot.

Imagine you sell fifteen versions of a widget, each coming from different manufacturers. Each of them supplying you with their own unique photo. Suddenly your product page looks like a patchwork of styles and colors, none of them matching your store's brand. A visual confusion. In response manufacturers ended up settling on the generic white background product shot allowing their images to fit seamlessly into anyone's site and look uniform alongside other manufacturer's products. We have Amazon to thank for formulating that style and making it an industry standard.

Unfortunately that doesn't solve the main issue people have about online shopping, and one of my biggest gripes, of not being able to handle an item to inspect it. Consumers have to rely on the online retailer to do this for them but they're still working with outdated sales practices of using the information supplied by the manufacturer or distributor. For the sake of simplicity and expediency I can understand why they do this. It would be a monumental task to go through each of the millions of products to write an effective description and provide a substitute to that tactile inspection.

It has to be done though, and I'm not the only one complaining about it. A recent poll by Smallbiztrends.com states that, "49% of online shoppers cite not being able to touch, feel or try a product as one of their least favorite aspects of online shopping." That percentage will continue to grow as e-commerce becomes more popular.

The burden will continue to trickle back, as it does now, to the manufacturers. After all, they will be the ultimate losers when their products don't sell because some other manufacturer provided their distributors with the appropriate images and information. Guaranteed this will happen. If you think about it, does the retailer care if they sell your item or your competitor's? Nope, they're still making a sale.

That's not to say the responsibility lies solely at the manufacturer's end. High end retailers and boutique shops that rely on their particular brand to reach their target audience have already discovered the value of good product photography to retain customers. They are stepping away from the generic "on white" look and creating images that meld seamlessly into their look and brand. A small up front investment in marketing can return higher profits because a product is now seen as more enticing to their customers. On a broader scope, if the customer is pleased with their overall shopping experience at a particular online store the odds of them returning again is increased.

Here is a short bullet point list of things I would like to see in an online listing, as a consumer;
  • Multiple views of the image - Don't just show me what the front looks like. Too often I already know what it looks like from the front but need more info about what's in the back. Specially electronics, auto part, and any product that has to fit into another product. This is one of the reason I love 360° views of a product, it lets me inspect a product from various angles just like I would to the physical item.
  • At least one real world image - I like seeing the product on white. It allows me to really get a sense of the item. However, with some items I have no sense of scale. At least one image should be a practical view of the item in place in a typical setting, or being used in the traditional manner, in order to get a sense of scale and to help visualize what it would be like to own that item.
  • Alternate views or exploded views - Items that open, unzip, expand, transform, have hidden compartments, or have features not seen from a typical outside product view needs to highlight or showcase these features with its own image. If a boot has an instep zipper don't just show me the outside of the boot. I need to see the construction of that zippered part. Preferably opened so I can see what the boot looks like inside as well.
  • Dimensions and other stats - Scale, as mentioned, is difficult to judge online. The listing needs to have dimensions, but not just the overall dimension and definitely not the package or shipping dimensions. I'm going to be using the item, not the box it came in. If it has inner compartments, list those as well. If it expands or transforms I need to know those dimensions too.
  • Complete descriptions - Things like materials, operating features, compatibility features or issues, alternate colors, sizes and models are standard pieces of information too often lacking in online descriptions. The more the better because making the final decision doesn't come down to what information I received but what information I didn't. If I lack enough information to make an educated, practical decision I won't make that purchase.

Unfortunately many manufacturers, distributors and retailers alike fall short in providing enough information to their customers. This goes even for the more common everyday items they sell. Just because an item is ubiquitous doesn't mean it should lack information. A paper clip is a paper clip is a paper clip, until it isn't. There are small clips and large clips and even jumbo clips. Some are coated some are not. Some are metal, some plastic and some are... you get the point.

The internet has spawned a new type of human interaction (or lack of, if you talk with some people) where the anonymity of the internet allows people to be brutally blunt about their feelings. If given a choice between two outlets that sell similar items but one has given the shopper all the information they need you can bet they'll drop the other without batting an eye. If you want to increase sales, you need to provide your customers with all the information they need or they will go someplace else. Guaranteed.

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