Nikki Baird, Managing Partner, RSR Research
Rich Internet Applications, or RIAs, have officially joined the jargon jar. The term has come to mean so many things that it's hard to tell what people are really talking about when they talk about RIAs - sort of like the problem facing the term "Web 2.0." So before embarking on any discussion of RIAs and their impact on retail, it's useful to spend a minute on what RIAs really are.
Wikipedia's definition is pretty narrow and technical: "Web applications that have the features and functionality of traditional desktop applications. RIAs typically transfer the processing necessary for the user interface to the web client but keep the bulk of the data (i.e., maintaining the state of the program, the data, etc.) back on the application server."
For my intents and purposes, I'm going to use a broader definition. RIAs are basically any web-based application that provides an interactive user experience without the need to refresh a webpage (all of the hyperlinks below lead you to representative examples). This can include anything "streaming," whether sound or video (or text); widgets, which are basically mini-web pages that you can stash on your desktop; and mashups, where different widgets, streams or practically any web resource can be combined with other resources to produce something new and different. Google map mashups are probably the most ubiquitous example out there today.
So, great, call the e-commerce tech guys and be done with it, right? Not yet. RIAs have only seen mainstream use in the last year, so the role that they can - or will - play in retail is still very unclear. This isn't about the geeks upgrading the website. This is about creating new user experiences and new ways of engaging with your brand. Don't leave that to the tech team just yet.
The possibilities are endless, so I'm going to take you through five examples of how RIAs are being used today, and then cover a few examples of how they might be used in the future.
1. Interactive Video. This application reminds me a lot of those old kids' "Choose Your Own Adventure" books. You read through a section and at the end had to make a decision about what happened next. Based on your choice, you turned to a page, and then picked up the story from there. From the user's perspective, it's one straight-line story. From the author's perspective, every possible outcome has to be created, and you just line them up based on the reader's choices. That's pretty much how interactive video works. All of the possible outcomes are there, but through the RIA interface, it's one streamed experience - one story - from the user's perspective. The retail possibilities are there: a virtual fashion show where the user gets to dress the models? How about buy what your favorite characters are wearing in your favorite TV show?
2. Search slidebars. Note the search slide bar in the top left corner of this link to The Find. Not only does it graphically show you where the "heat" is (the darker the color, the more items that meet that particular price criteria), but when you grab one of the sliders with your mouse it also tells you exactly how many items fit into your criteria window. The most common application today is for price, but anything that fits in a continuum applies - colors, sizes, even product ratings.
3. 3-D Spins/Product Rotation. For high-touch items, 3-D views of products are rapidly becoming a must-have - and you don't even have to be as high-tech as the example above - there are low-tech versions too (when you click on the "multi-view" in this link, note that all of the image changes happen in the same window). Shop.org found a big jump in the apparel category's online sales, and anything that helps consumers get a sense of the product before they buy it both increases their satisfaction with the experience, and reduces returns.
4. Virtual Dressing Room. This is the next generation of the 3-D capability. It involves selecting a model that reflects the consumer's size or shape, and seeing what the item looks like on that model.
5. Business Intelligence/Analytics Tools. Good examples of this aren't public, but increasingly the same in-screen drill down or pop-ups that you find as part of the shopping experience are becoming available to enterprise users too. Interactive graphs, slide bar search refinements, rotation and visual mashups of concentrated text all make it easier for users to rapidly assimilate a huge amount of information in a short amount of time - and make a decision and take action.
The future, as Max Headroom so heavily implies, is often only 30 seconds away, and so it is with RIAs. Virtual dressing rooms might include a virtual closet, but stocked only with H&M clothes, for example. Great for H&M, but limiting from a consumer's perspective. As more retailers put visual information about their products online, there is definitely room for consumer-oriented virtual closets, where a user can pair her Lucky jeans with her H&M top to see how it looks - and share it with friends. Taaz is something of an example of this, but for makeup instead of clothes - and the "buy" portion, which has the potential to tap into just about every makeup product available to be sold, is not so far away (upload a picture of yourself or play with Angelina Jolie's pic to get the full experience).
Mobile is also most definitely the next frontier for RIAs, though it is hampered by a much more complex technology infrastructure, with a lot more players vying for a piece of the pie, between carriers, handset manufacturers, software developers and more. The biggest stumbling block is the need for a persistent connection in order to make RIAs function well - something carriers aren't too keen to facilitate on the cellular network, especially when they can no longer charge per use.
So what should retailers do about RIAs today? First, keep an eye on the technology. There have been too many recent developments, new tools and new applications of RIAs to cover here. The upshot is that the technologies that support RIAs are still relatively immature, but are firmly on the accelerated part of the learning curve. Maturity will be here before you know it.
Second, watch user-facing developments closely: Some of the more sophisticated RIAs have been developed for other retail verticals, such as furniture layout applications or games or widgets developed by packaged goods brands to promote consumer engagement. But just because an innovation is not a ready fit to be grafted onto the apparel industry doesn't mean that consumers won't start expecting something from you anyway.
The one thing that the retail industry has learned about the internet to date is that consumers don't care about the "how" of the customer service experience - what they see from one retailer that they like, they shortly expect from all retailers, regardless of vertical, regardless of channel.
About Nikki Baird
Nikki Baird is a Managing Partner at Retail Systems Research, an industry market intelligence firm specializing in the impact of technology on the extended retail industry. She covers the impact of technology on the retailer-consumer relationship. Topics range from in-store technology and store performance management to supply chain, retailer-manufacturer collaboration, merchandising, multi-channel and mobile commerce, and loyalty and promotions management.