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Photos in a Snap

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As the number of e-commerce players increases, so do the methods they use to differentiate themselves. One critical way to become –and remain — competitive is to find the right marketing strategy, and a key element of that strategy is delivering the right combination of visuals and product information to make the sale.

What sounds like business as usual is actually quite complex, especially since most manufacturers supply product images. To make matters worse, retailers often manage the product image process manually or contact each individual supplier for photos.

Missoula, Mont.-based multi-channel outdoor retailer Bob Wards works with approximately 1,000 vendor partners and features between 47,000 and 60,000 SKUs online. “The biggest hurdle for us is finding the proper images and then locating them on our partners’ sites,” says Travis Benson, the retailer’s e-commerce manager.

Sometimes this process is as simple as pulling an image off a website, which isn’t all that time-consuming unless those images are poor quality. Even when retailers work with suppliers that can provide high-resolution images, they are often required to set up a user account and wait for supplier approval to access the image — a process that can take anywhere from minutes to 24 hours.

Or worse, “If the vendor doesn’t have the image we need, then we have to wait for them to download images onto a CD or DVD that must be mailed to us,” Benson notes, leaving the company at the mercy of the postal system.

Eliminating excess work
Redmond, Ore.-based outdoor retailer is committed to displaying an image for every one of its 30,000 products. “If a consumer is ready to make a purchase but can’t find a picture of what they want, chances are they may not buy it,” says Ryan Hirschberg,a visual asset manager for the company.

Altrec also deals with a large number of suppliers, and Hirschberg is single-handedly responsible for more than 200 brands. Besides dealing with so many companies, “the images come from multiple sources, including FTP sites, e-mail, DVDs and CDs, even portable flash drives,” he says. “We also have an in-house studio that we use to create alternate views of merchandise.”

Adding to the complexity is the fact that “brands often use different terms than we use when naming merchandise image files, and this is reflected in file names,” Hirschberg says. “We create reports on missing product images and then try to match these to supplier names ... Often we end up renaming files, which is time-consuming and slows productivity.”

One option to eliminate excess work and redundancy on both sides is to use a centralized repository to access photos and a standard, consistent file naming system for all parties to use when searching and uploading images.

Chicago-based Shotfarm is one such repository. Designed by a team of retail marketing professionals, Shotfarm strives to ease the task of getting product images and information from point A to point B primarily by using the exchange as a replacement for the creation, management and distribution of CDs, DVDs, FTP logins and e-mail attachments.

Once manufacturers upload image assets via a simple batch upload tool, retail partners use the service’s search tool to find images based on different fields of product metadata, including brand or model/UPC number. Chosen images are deposited in a folder; when the user is ready, he can download all images at once via a zip file.

Creating efficiency
While the entire image exchange is free, Shotfarm’s business model is based on fees accrued from the additional services it provides. The platform’s most popular fee-based tool is its SuperNamer plug-in, which eases file name standardization. Using product metadata, the plug-in allows retailers to batch renamed manufacturer assets upon download to their own specific e-commerce naming convention, removing yet another step from the image management process.

This service provides efficiencies on the manufacturer side, as well: Creating a zip file takes approximately one minute and saves hours in uploading and downloading time. “Since using the service, we have achieved more efficient bulk downloading,” Hirschberg says.

Bob Wards is still in the early stages of creating its seasonal database and expects to begin using the service when it presents its fall 2011 merchandise. “Shotfarm is also helping us contact our supplier partners and get more partners to use the service,” says Benson. “It only takes a second to click on an image, but every click and every second adds up when you are going to different sites. By keeping all images in one place we are creating more efficiency and using our time more wisely.”

Bob Wards expects to see measurable results by next spring, he says.

Realizing the importance of full-motion video services for multi-channel retailers, Shotfarm plans to expand its service to support centralized management of video assets. This is good news for Bob Wards, which relies on videos to present a variety of category and products “in motion.”

“The more images you have in front of consumers gives them more confidence to make a purchase,” says Hirschberg. “This collateral is easier to access on some vendor’s websites than others. It would be great to access all of these in one place.”