Lean-Back With Benefits: Discovery Vs. Search In T-Commerce

The tablet inspires a certain kind of interaction that all of us are only beginning to grasp. As publishers saw engagement rates here exceed those on the Web (even when people used tablet Web browsers) they immediately took notice. As agencies started noticing that cart sizes and conversions from people browsing on their tablets edged higher than the desktop, people really took notice. And now that TV providers are struggling to understand just how profoundly this lapboard device distracts or complements the living room prime-time experience, grasping the new mode of interactivity tablets inspire has become critical.

Everyone has their own descriptor distinguishing tablet use from desktop and mobile. Ben Choi, CEO of catalog app provider CoffeeTable, has been watching users interact with his aggregation of brand product catalogs for the past year. He describes tablet mode in terms of the user’s frame of mind. “The tablet experience is not so much on-the-go or spur-of-the-moment,” he says. “It is, I have time to kill and I am leaning back, in a relaxed mindset. Entertain me. Don’t make me work hard at this.”

Choi aggregates 140 catalogs via direct relationships with the providers: including Express, CB2, Land’s End, Crate & Barrel. You get a wall of catalogs in one app that is a virtual version of the stack of mail order print tomes that pile up beside the couch. He is banking on this tablet mode as substantially different from the typical Web browsing mode. “Consumers are in a mindset to discover. E-commerce tends to be about search. But on the tablet they are looking for a more discovery-oriented device.”

In other words, tablets are lean-back with benefits. You can move in and out at will and as inspired. Choi’s CoffeeTable app tries to enhance the discovery aspect by learning from past choices and personalizing the catalogs it pushes forward. But it also embeds slick hyperlinks icons into every page of the repurposed print asset. Decide to engage the page and you get a slick slide-in panel with the item detail, other items on the same page and a buy button.

The app deftly combines the print experience with the e-commerce opportunity. The retailers give Choi’s team the PDF of the catalog and the digital product feed. Instead of merely scraping retail Web sites to reformat them into a Flipboard-like experience, the idea here is to preserve the merchandising aspect of print.

By preserving the print format with app functionality, however, CoffeeTable aspires not to replace printed mail order catalogs so much as to serve that industry with data they never had before about the catalog reading experience. “They never knew whether the reader had gotten to page 20 or to page 60,” Choi says. The analytics from CoffeeTable can give granular data about how people are interacting with the catalog, how far they get into it, how their behaviors translate into transactions.

In theory, an app like CoffeeTable could render back to the catalog industry a greater understanding of how they might design their catalogs. But tablets also bring something new and different to the table. The rule of thumb in print is that people tend to focus on the first ten pages of a catalog and the last ten pages, if only because of the print interface: front to back or back to front. The middle tends to get the least amount of shopper attention and the least amount of retailer focus.

Tablets may actually change our understanding of how people view catalogs. “Our data shows there is a drop-off in the middle,” says Choi. “But once you get to the middle point the curve shallows to your most loyal customers. But once they get to the middle point they also go to the end.” Choi maintains that a more detailed understanding of how people engage even in virtualized print can help the catalog industry better capture their most valuable customers.   

Because the catalog industry is so data-driven, Choi is trying to provide a top-line metric that indicates the kind of growing impact tablets are having with consumers. His Couch Commerce Index combines diverse metrics, including tablet penetration, overall consumer confidence, engagement levels with tablet media. For Q2 2012, the “CCI” went up 5 points from Q1, from 114 to 119. The number is derived from changes like a 32% growth in tablet penetration and that it sees 6.5% of e-commerce being driven by tablets now. They say that “couch consumers” spent 19% more in Q2 2012 than they did even during the Q4 2011 holiday season.

Catalogs on tablets is another example of how this in-between device conquers media mindshare because it so smoothly virtualizes behaviors and modes that people already had. The prime-time distraction has always been there, long before second screens. Newspapers and magazines and catalogs were that pre-digital second screen. Touch interfaces added to digital media the familiar tactile thumbing maneuver we had known for generations. The desktop, both in its upright situation and the abstraction of a mouse and keyboard, erected barriers between us and media that we never fully appreciated until they actually came down. Sorry for sounding like a broken record. But touch-based device access to digital data is taking off so fast for a very simple reason -- pent-up demand. This is what we always really wanted digital media to be.    

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