Communicating colours in e-commerce

How better technical product description could pay off through improved customer experience

“The colour of the couch that looked red on the website is actually pink, but, thankfully, it matches the colour scheme of my living room anyway,” wrote a reviewer with a positive attitude. However, not all online customers feel so relaxed about colour discrepancy between the digital image and the physical product.

Surveys on customer dissatisfaction and attrition in e-commerce invariably point out the importance of colour accuracy, especially with regards to product lines of cosmetics, fashion, furniture, soft furnishings and paint. Many shoppers would never ever consider buying these kinds of colour-critical items online for the same reason.

In the past five years, however, both colour-specialist companies and software developers have made great strides in ensuring that the physical colours of designs, prototypes and products, as well as their online representations across different screens and browsers, match.

The root cause of the colour communication gap lies in the two prevailing languages, or so-called colour profiles, which developed separately based on distinct colour models: Pantone for physical surfaces and sRGB for digital images.

The number of colours covered by these two profiles differ radically. As sRGB creates colours by combining the reds, greens and blues of the screen (hence the name) in varying proportions with 255 shades of each, its gamut comprises more than 16 million colour values. Meanwhile, Pantone’s colour count, with its 2020 additions, is 2,625.

This would suggest that all the Pantone colours, used by product designers in their creative processes, can be converted into sRGB values. But Pantone 17-5641 Emerald, the Colour of the Year in 2013, proved that there are hues perceived as rather common by the eye which lie outside the sRGB gamut. That year the colour that was meant to guide designers and fashion trends had no digital equivalent, only a close approximation achieved by a digital workaround.

Fast-forward to 2021, and the illuminating yellow and ultimate grey of the year already come with their sRGB values. Colour management software in middle and upmarket electronic products can ensure that identical hues look the same on camera, mobile and laptop screens, as well as in different browsers. Designers adverse to being bogged down by the technicalities of colour manufacturing can rely on apps that make the conversion between digital colours and their equivalents on various surfaces – whether cotton, plastic or metal – effortless.

Colour, the bottleneck in e-commerce

Meanwhile, visuals in e-commerce have become more sophisticated too. While in 2016 one product picture sufficed, today six pictures per product are becoming the norm. Not only are available colours listed in product descriptions, but they can also be seen “on the model” at the click of the mouse.

Brands are increasingly going out of their way to leverage advancements in digital technology to make online shopping a more exciting experience. With the help of augmented reality, customers can see how a new wardrobe would fit into their living room, how they would look with a new hair dye or whether the new soft furnishings will blend in with the wall paint.

Augmented reality applications nowadays are increasingly enabled by 3D rendering, a new, easily scalable and less expensive way of creating product images than photography is. The photorealistic pictures it can generate via 3D models enable online customers to get a 360-degree view of the product or to customise it for their needs using the 3D configurator feature.

It’s not a question of if but rather when virtual photography becomes mainstream in creating product images for e-commerce sites. Leading furniture manufacturers already use the technology in their catalogues, but many other businesses also take advantage of having a publishable picture of the product before manufacturing starts.

But even all these cutting-edge technologies are dependent on colour accuracy. There is no point in seeing a piece of furniture from all angles or even checking out how a canvas painting would look on your wall if you can’t have a truthful rendering of the product colour as well.

A way forward?

The acute need for a consumer’s converter between physical and digital colours has already been identified by the of colour specialist market. A few years ago, a colour-matching app combined with a calibration card had been released with a view to bridging this ever-narrowing but persistent gap, albeit with moderate success. 

One can’t help thinking that a reverse approach may be more viable. Instead of trying to capture physical colours through photography, which makes them elusive, a more extensive use of the colour language could stand a better chance to square the circle. A standardised, clear version of the colour language spoken between designers communicating with manufacturers and brands, or retailers and the online marketplaces that they upload product image to, should be also shared with customers.

With Pantone codes or sRGB values included in product descriptions, colour-conscious customers could get their hues right by simply relying on those or applying them to colour-matching and augmented reality apps. Including some more numbers alongside product dimensions on e-commerce sites would definitely take up much less precious processor capacity than embedding colour profiles into product pictures to achieve accuracy across screens.

Moreover, a shared language of physical and digital colours with a standardised conversion system between the two could embolden customers who have so far been deterred by the vagaries of colour to shop online.

Zita Goldman

Zita Goldman

Zita Goldman covers digital transformation with a focus on demystifying digital technologies and showing how they fit into a broader sectoral, macroeconomic, legislative and societal context. She has a passion for connecting the dots of current business and financial news and explaining inconsistencies, for giving hype a reality check and looking behind buzzwords for fresh meaning.

© Business Reporter 2021

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