Brookstone's Great 3-D Adventure

Gadget retailer Brookstone showed guts this week when it unveiled one of the first-ever retail 3-D E-Commerce sites. The trouble with being a pioneer is that it's virtually impossible to get it right the first time.

Pulling in $512 million last year through 306 stores plus web and catalogue, Brookstone makes its living finding and selling cutting-edge tech gadgets that are often not found elsewhere. It's clientele skews to the younger side and all of this together makes Brookstone a good candidate for piloting a new E-Commerce tactic.

The problem is that pioneers have to be very careful or else their well-intentioned errors could mar the technology for anyone else to deploy. Put another way, is a bad experience in a very early trial proof of a good execution of a flawed idea or the flawed execution of a good idea? Regrettably, both results look exactly the same.

Brookstone this week unveiled the site that had been discussed in 3-D circles for months.

The theoretical advantages of 3-D E-Commerce have been discussed extensively, ranging from the ability to customize a virtual site to precisely mimic someone's home or office to consumers seeing impulse buys or associated items that they would often miss online.

How close did Brookstone's efforts get to this ideal? Not very.

First off, judge for yourself as this is a very personal matter. After I tried using the site, I put out inquiries to a bunch of colleagues to do the same and to report back so I'd know if it was just me.

The results from almost everyone were surprisingly similar. In summary, this is a very impressive first effort. That said, the interface needs considerable work. Most of the help screens are not especially intuitive, leaving people with questions such as "how do I move forward?" Turns out you can use the arrow keys or certain keyboard letters, but both will be blocked apparently if your mouse gets grouchy.

The display does show images of a very long list of items. But the images are small enough that they don't mean anything until the customer is right on top of them and zooms in. The intended effortless walking through the aisles where an attractive product catches your eye isn't working here.

Those were the core complaints, namely that it was difficult to use and, even when it worked, it didn't seem to deliver any advantage compared with the retailer's traditional Web site. Some complained that the site simply didn't work, with mouseclicks ignored. I experienced several of those myself.

The navigation seemed to be the biggest problem. Said one colleague: "Looking at the floor (so I could move around the store) gave me a virtual pain in my neck."

I found that my character would apparently accelerate out of control periodically, giving me no option but to deliberately crash him into the wall to get him to stop. This was simultaneously frustrating and enjoyable, in a Gomez Addams model train set kind of way.

One especially astute observer went through the site and she had the ultimate big picture objection: "My initial take was: what is the point? It's faster to do a text search or browse a category than to browse through this store. You can't see the items until you are on top of them anyway, so there's no advantage visually. It's hard and frustrating to navigate. The rise of the web has contributed to my short attention span. I didn't have the patience to play with this for more than a few minutes."

Other concerns:
  • The site requires an applet to be downloaded. Said one reviewer: "You want me to download a specific app just to shop at your store? I don't think so." Said another: "I don't like sites that install stuff on my computer, especially not shopping sites. There are just too many security risks." And yet another colleague: "I can't say I'm inclined to let very many sites install anything on my computers to 'enhance my shopping experience.' I've been a happy online shopper for many, many years without them so far. "
  • The site currently requires Windows, a fact that did not sit well with Mac and Linux enthusiasts.
  • The initial download takes a long time to activate. It might be unavoidable, but it's going to turn off many first-time users. Said a colleague: "First use takes ages. It almost lost me on that count alone. Once I loaded it, it's way slow and my mouse doesn't work very well and it reacts very slowly."
  • The site has a low-budget look to it. Scott Evernden, the chief technology officer for Kinset (the company that made the 3-D site for Brookstone), said there weren't a lot of 3-D product shots available so they had to improvise with 2-D images in a 3-D environment. I had no issue with the aesthetic choices, but others did. One had a particular objection to a dark cloudy sky which, when coupled with the absence of any human beings in the store, gave the site an eerie feel. Personally, I like eerie, so I was fine with it.
  • One reviewing colleague who made it all the way to checkout had a different security concern: "I tried to buy an ipod boombox" and was told he needed to enable cookies. "Windows Explorer is set for medium privacy, which blocks some cookies that violate basic privacy settings. I abandoned my cart at that point. Products that make users institute permissive web browser behavior are undesirable to me."

    All of that said, I would submit that these shortcomings in no way undermine the appeal of 3-D E-Commerce. What Brookstone is attempting is an order of magnitude beyond what any other large retailer has tackled. They should be commended for trying and for reminding the industry what the future of E-Commerce might look like.

    Indeed, I won't even suggest that Brookstone and Kinset got it wrong. This is extremely dicey stuff they're struggling with and there are no models out there. The problem with being a trendsetter, a true pioneer, is that it's easy to criticize even though they are lightyears beyond what anyone else has done.

    Remember how clunky the initial Web sites were? I remember painfully trying to navigate SEC Edgar records—back around 1993—on this new thing called the Web, working with a text browser. Graphical browsers were still many months away.

    Did that painful SEC searching mean that the Web should be abandoned? Hardly. And yet the 1993 Web scene was a lot further along than the 2007 3-D E-Commerce scene.

    I am guessing that within the next year, the Brookstone site (assuming Brookstone sticks with it) will have eliminated the vast majority of these problems and might even pick up one or two fellow retail pioneers. Within 3-4 years, 3-D may be ready for primetime.

    So let's not be too harsh on the Web pioneers. That said, it's clear that 3-D E-Commerce still has a huge amount of work ahead. But if your E-Commerce group wants to be around and active four years from now, 3-D is no longer something you can afford to ignore.