When you shop the Web, what you see isn't always what you get.
J.Crew hopes to solve that problem.
By Nikhil Hutheesing
WHEN J.CREW PUT ITS CATALOG on the Web in 1997, its entire
clothing line was easily accessible to millions of customers. Sales
jumped, but one fundamental problem irked the New York-based
"When people come to our Web site, we want them to feel safe with
their purchase," says Brian Sugar, director of new media at J.Crew,
vowing to reduce the return rate, which he isn't about to specify.
Why the problem? One reason lies in the distortions of color. There
isn't a universal color standard on the Web—or in all of high tech.
So that lovely teal sweater on-line can turn out to be a less
lovely shade when it arrives in the mail. A deep blue shirt may turn
out to be sky blue; a pink stripe on a blouse could turn out to be
J.Crew wanted a low-cost, simple fix that wouldn't require Web
shoppers to download and install complex color-correcting software.
"That would be too much of a schlep," Sugar says. Last fall he
discovered a solution now being tested on the J.Crew site; a formal
rollout is set for June. Other Web stores could follow.
The color code comes from Sonne-tech, Ltd., a tiny software firm
in San Francisco. It has new software, known as ChromaServe, that
resides on a company's Web server to tackle the color flaws that the
rest of the industry has all but ignored.
Manufacturers of computer screens, graphics cards and software
don't recognize a common approach to exactly what the color red
should look like; each product skews colors in its own way. A
printer takes its instructions from the operating system. But a
monitor takes them from the graphics card. That means the colors you
print may not be exactly the same as the colors that appear on your
The new software bypasses such inconsistencies. When you arrive
at the Web site, ChromaServe queries your system and offers the
ability to make color corrections by calibrating your monitor with
just a few clicks of the mouse.
And once you have done that, a small piece of the software code
stays behind in your PC. It then lets you know, each time you visit
yet another Web site, whether that shop uses the ChromaServe scheme.
Visit one that does, and your PC screen displays Sonnetech's icon, a
globe with a colorful ring swirling around it. Click onto a site
that doesn't use the ChromaServe technology, and the globe appears
with a cross drawn through it. Ouch.
It isn't clear how kindly Web sites will view this, a kind of
digital passing of judgment on their true colors. Sonnetech says
it's simply trying to make Web shopping more reliable.
With the new software, calibrating your monitor is easy. You
handle red, green and blue separately, each time by matching a color
background against boxes of slightly different shades. You click on
the one that best blends into the background, and the server
software tunes its digital image files to your monitor.
The human eye does a good job at color-matching. "Our visual
systems are terrible at determining the difference in sunlight at
noon and at 1 p.m.," says Peter Engeldrum, a color scientist who
helped create the product. "But we are very good at determining
small differences when you compare them side by side, like whether
Sonnetech started work on color correction in 1994, aiming not
for on-line but on-screen, simply ensuring that the colors on a
computer monitor were the same colors that showed up when an image
was printed out. That original version of the software, dubbed
Colorific, has been bundled into more than 8 million graphics
circuit boards, monitors and printers.
But with the rise of sales on the Web, going on-line was a
natural progression. Sonnetech charges companies about $8,000 per
month for ChromaServe, depending on Web traffic. William Hilliard,
the company's chief executive, hopes to pull in $9 million in total
revenue this year. Of that, $1 million will come from Web-related
For J.Crew, the hope is that being one of the first to offer
accurate color might give the company an edge in cyberspace. "When
our customers order a pair of chinos and open up the box when it
arrives," Sugar says hopefully, "it will be the color they
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