How Product Photography Is Changing How You Shop Online

In e-commerce, images are everything. While that might sound like hyperbole, it’s no exaggeration that, in the absence of being able to pick up and try on a product, shoppers have to rely on whatever visuals they’re provided when making their purchasing decisions.

On Zappos, this means Birkenstock buyers see seven photos of the shoe plus a video of a model walking around in a pair and pointing out details like the flexible sole. On Adidas.com, it is eleven product shots, two videos and a grid of Instagram posts. Last summer, Amazon began testing 360-degree spin photography in product listings, allowing vendors in certain categories to add interactive images that give shoppers the chance to see an item from all angles.

As digital becomes an increasingly crucial step in the customer journey — even for purchases that are ultimately made in-store — the pressure is on for brands and retailers to offer imagery that will make shoppers feel confident enough to hit “buy.”

“When people get used to, ‘What I see on the site is what I get,’ there tends to be brand loyalty,” said Jill Groeber, creative director at the digital agency Lyons Consulting Group. “I do think now, with less shopping in-store, [product photography] is more important than it was initially, because you definitely need to provide people with more context clues about what they’re getting.”

When an item isn’t accurately portrayed online, customers can end up feeling duped, shouldering retailers with avoidable returns — a particularly costly problem for footwear and apparel, which can see double the online return rates of other categories.

Labels that wholesale to department stores and other multi-brand retailers say that more and more of these accounts are requesting a wide range of specific product shots to accompany each product launch.

“I think people who are really into fashion and into footwear specifically — all the sneaker heads out there — it really does come down to the devil in the details,” said Michael Cicerone, manager of wholesale operations at Puma North America. “And that’s what we’re seeing with a lot of these retailers, that’s why there’s so many different requests for different angles, and so many close-ups and little detail shots that they want to get out there.”

If brands don’t furnish the images in time, retailers may handle the photography themselves, issuing chargebacks to brands for the service. In one year, said Cicerone, Puma saw $80,000 in photo charges from Dick’s Sporting Goods alone, since the process the athletic brand was using at the time — shipping the limited samples it had to an outside studio — wasn’t turning around images fast enough.

Now, Puma works with Snap36, a 360-degree 3D photography company, to produce these assets in-house — a boon also to the brand’s sales team, who can provide the images to wholesale accounts when samples aren’t available. The company plans to expand this photo studio when it moves to its new North American headquarters in Somerville, Mass. in 2021, Cicerone said.

Snap36’s other clients include Rack Room Shoes, Macy’s and Hudson’s Bay Co., as well as sneaker resale marketplaces like StockX and Flight Club, and the company operates a 40,000-square-foot studio in Chicago as well as on-site photography that it says can be set up inside a distribution center to cut turnaround times down to a day.

“When you look at the big guys, like a Dick’s Sporting Goods, they’re all about inventory turns,” Snap36 CEO and founder Jeff Hunt told FN. “If they have to sit on inventory, they’re counting it by the day and the week and the month. And in those cases, if they don’t have imagery and they can’t be selling products on their website and they’ve got your products taking up room in their distribution center, they’re losing money and they’re losing efficiency.”

While Snap36 works with a range of industries, including automotive and consumer goods, Hunt said footwear is especially well-suited to its technology.

“Envision walking into a Nordstrom, and you walk into the shoe area. What’s everybody doing? They’re walking up the shoes, picking them up, turning them over, flipping them around,” he said. “And every single person has a different reason why they like or dislike that shoe: it could be how the heel works, it could be the tongue, it could be the sole.”

If a brand or retailer is shooting shoes of a similar size and make, Hunt said, 360-degree photography can also be very efficient, capturing 50 to 100 (and even up to 150) pairs of shoes per day and delivering between 24 and 72 angles along with the spinnable image at a cost less than the $100-plus per shoe a brand might pay for eight images from a typical product photographer.

Video might offer a similar range of details, but, Groeber cautioned, retailers should take into account page load time. (One study by the market research company Forrester found that 47% of consumers expect a website to load in two seconds or less, and high-spending shoppers are particularly.)

“With more people going mobile and mobile being first, you have to weigh out what do you gain and what do you lose from it in terms of how long it’s going to take to download: Will people stick around and watch a video?”

Detail, then, is important, but if it comes at the expense of speed, customers may never get the chance to see it.

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