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Seeing the future: Top e-commerce product visualization strategies

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We’re living in a visual world. Eighty-one percent of Americans now own smartphones, meaning that at any time they can see a picture of literally anything. And they take advantage of this ability: 22.6 percent of all Google searches are specifically for images.

When it comes to e-commerce, the importance of images can’t be overstated: 59 percent of customers consider images the most important factor in their decision to make an online purchase – more important than product descriptions, reviews, or even price.

But the e-commerce customer journey doesn’t end at the moment of purchase: it’s not until a customer actually receives a physical product that they’re happy with. Too often, they’re not: e-commerce has a 20 percent return rate, more than twice what we see in brick-and-mortar retail.

The good news: the right product visualizations can boost sales and decrease returns. Here’s an overview of which types of visual content tend to work in various situations and how e-commerce brands can deploy excellent visual content across their web properties without a team of full-time photographers.

VR? AR? 3D? Choosing the right visualization for your e-commerce products

In the days of paper catalogs, retailers had the straightforward task of capturing excellent two-dimensional photos of their merchandise and distributing them to shoppers. Today, e-commerce brands have a dizzying array of visual content options: Virtual reality (VR)? Augmented reality (AR)? Interactive 3D? Plain old 2D?

Before investing in any of these, it helps to know where each tends to work best when it comes to e-commerce visualization:

VR: While popular in some gaming applications, VR has yet to take off in most e-commerce applications, primarily because of the difficult form factor: most people simply don’t have the equipment necessary (i.e., a headset) to make a VR experience work. 

However, the tide may be turning. The Oculus Quest, introduced this May, is affordable enough that it may spur mass adoption. If it does, e-commerce brands should look to VR as a way to build trust and community via content.

VR content should be designed for customers to enjoy in private; the experience of disappearing into a virtual world is too disorienting for most people to be willing to try in public.

AR has seen huge success in the furniture space, and should offer a similar upside for any brands selling large, costly, or difficult-to-ship (and difficult-to-return) items. AR applications let shoppers place virtual products into real-world settings to see how they’ll fit.

Customers can see whether a new sofa fits along their wall, or whether a rug will work with their curtains. One reason AR is booming right now is the form factor: shoppers only need a smartphone to view an augmented version of their world.

Interactive 3D offers many compelling use cases:

Full product rotations: Allows shoppers to manipulate 3D renderings of products to see every side and angle. Full rotations tend to be useful for intricate products with lots of detail, highly technical products (think: dishwasher components), and customizable products.

Product explosions: Products with important internal layers (like the safety features in this football helmet) are perfect candidates for product explosions, which lets shoppers look at the component parts of a product. An explosion can help illustrate why your item’s price tag might be higher than your competitors’.

Click-and-move product markups: Think of these as an interactive owner’s manual. By offering clickable 3D, you can illustrate how to use complex and mechanical products like printer-scanners and offer helpful ways to trouble-shoot common problems.

Photorealistic 2D still has a place in e-commerce, too. When you opt for computer-generated 2D images, you can achieve a higher quality and much lower cost than you could by employing photographers – and you can save everyone a lot of hassle.

Photorealistic 2D images are excellent for products that are highly configurable, like fashion, and furniture. By using computer-generated images, you make it possible for shoppers to swap out colors and features – and immediately see what the change would look like.

Because these photos are computer-generated, any photographers you do work with are freed up from taking thousands of dull and repetitive photos so they can focus on shots that demand human creativity.

The ROI of product visualization

The right product visualizations can boost sales and decrease returns. Generally, e-commerce brands find that 22 percent of returns happen because a product looks different than it did in images on the website.

Interactive 3D, photorealistic 2D images, and AR applications let you solve that problem. And better images can increase the number of people who buy in the first place, too: one brand saw a revenue boost of nearly 10 percent by simply increasing the size of the photos on its website.

These numbers are particularly compelling given that digital product visualization costs about 1/1,000 what similar assets would cost if produced manually. In other words: computer-generated product visualizations have an extremely favorable ROI.

More importantly, though, they’re becoming table stakes for e-commerce. Today, disruptors and forward-thinking brands are the ones that have top-tier visualizations (including interactive 3D, photorealistic and configurable 2D, and AR). Soon, that will be the new normal.

E-commerce brands that want to remain competitive will have to improve their product visualization strategies or accept losing sales to better-equipped competitors. The time to move is now.

Global B2C e-commerce sales are over $2 trillion. How do you stack up?
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Ben Houston
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Ben Houston

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