Friday, September 18, 2009

What went wrong at Innovations?

I was reminded of my years at Innovations by getting a tweet about a Telegraph article listing '50 things that are being killed by the internet', with the Innovations catalogue at number 19.

Innovations was where – like many friends and colleagues in the home shopping industry – I learnt most of what I know about mail order and direct mail. The article got me thinking about what went wrong at Innovations. Can the internet be blamed for the fading away of this once ubiquitous brand?

Because Sharper Image, the American inspiration for Innovations, has also foundered, I suspect that the real problem is not the internet. Both catalogues had early success online; at Innovations we took the first secure online order in the UK, and Sharper Image pioneered full integration between channels.

But in both the UK and the USA the vast majority of innovative and exciting products are now consumer electronics or web based services. Few of these work as catalogue products; for example electronic dictionaries were a great product for Innovations but I don’t suppose anyone even makes them anymore. The modern pace of electronics development leaves catalogue production schedules in the dust, with new products being launched every few months. Headlines like ‘longest battery life’ or ‘most pixels under £X’ are almost impossible now because some new product has arrived in the months between the copy being written and the catalogue dropping. The production volumes required to make electronic products price-competitive mean that few importers can offer exclusives to catalogues. The final insult is the meagre profit margins, insufficient to cover expensive print runs, but enough to provide countless web only suppliers.

So I blame the demise of Innovations on plain technological progress, not the internet.

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Augmented Reality: profit driver or techy toy?

You may have read about ‘Augmented Reality’, or AR, the latest techno catch phrase used to denote gadgets or software that superimpose layers of visual data onto ‘real life’. Two examples from the world of ecommerce caught my eye this week and both are worth looking at. But should merchants be adding AR to their list of website upgrades?

The first is an AR application for Glasses Direct:

You can try it for yourself (if you have a PC) by visiting

The second is an application that is supposed to help shoppers decide if clothes suit them:

My advice is to avoid this sort of feature for the foreseeable future. It can’t really replicate the experience of feeling and wearing a pair of glasses or a shirt and it is probably beyond the technological capabilities of all but the most dedicated shopper. The best AR can do is replicate holding up a garment in front of you, but holding up and trying on are two very different things. The Glasses Direct application - when refined - might be the exception that proves the rule, but for most other fashion categories I predict that AR will not be useful.

These both remind me of ‘My Virtual Model’, a feature introduced by Lands End in 2005 or so. It was very fiddly to use and although it is still active on the Lands End site it is hard to find and I haven’t seen it anywhere else.

None of these applications are playing to the strengths of the internet, just trying (and failing) to reproduce the experience of real shopping.

Friday, September 04, 2009

iPhones show the future of the web

I was surfing on my iPhone in bed last week. It seems I’m not the only one; although iPhones have only 13% of the smartphone market (as of the end of July 2009), a far higher proportion of web visits from mobiles are from iPhones (this study claims 67%). iPhone users surf far more often and for far longer than users of rival smartphones. Why? Because it is fun. My first smartphone used Windows Mobile and after a few months I stopped using it to surf unless it was an emergency. It was just too painful and frustrating. The iPhone, in contrast, is easy and fun to use and makes surfing rewarding. Make something usable and people will use it. Astonishing.

The speed from pocket to site is also a factor in the joy of iPhone surfing. Moments after you wonder “what’s the going rate for a George III mahogany chair” the answer comes up on your iPhone screen via the mobile version of eBay. Having the web in your pocket embedded on a device that knows where you are enables far more than simple fact checking; there are already iPhone ‘apps’ (software programs) that help shoppers find local merchants, compare prices, read reviews and more.

This kind of surfing shows where the web is going, and ecommerce merchants are well placed to take advantage of this trend: they already have a digital order processing system, a database of product details and a home shopping friendly customer base. All merchants should be looking – right now – at these three steps:

1) Adding customer reviews.
In a world where all shoppers, whether in a store or online, can compare merchants and prices easily and within seconds, good reviews from customers will become one the key differentiating factors between successful merchants and also-rans.

2) Creating a mobile version.
Reskinning an ecommerce website to fit a small screen should be straightforward, requiring little more than a revised layout.

3) Building an app.
The very well received ‘Ocado on the Go’ does what it says on the tin and helps make Ocado’s customers’ lives easier.

The most important task? If you haven’t got one, borrow an iPhone and hold the future in your hand.