NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON SKY ACTIVE - Sky Active plans to lure small retailers with Christmas Gifts

Sky is aiming to widen the choice on its TV shopping portal, Alasdair Reid says.

Sky Digital has quite possibly won this year's prize for the first press release to mention Christmas. No contest really, what with many people not yet back from their late summer breaks. But Sky can perhaps be forgiven in this instance because the project they're touting needs quite a bit of lead-time.

It's a service called Christmas Gifts and it's basically an extension of the Sky Active television shopping portal. It's designed to embrace smaller retailers - smaller, at any rate, that the usual high-street chains that have most commonly been found on digital television's virtual shopping malls.

Smaller players will be tempted to take the plunge, so the reasoning goes, because they're being offered a low entry cost to the medium - and that's because Sky and its project partner, Altura International, are providing a common checkout system for all retailers taking part. Actually, it's not just the cost issue - many smaller companies tend to find even the most basic e-commerce mechanisms an intimidating prospect.

And Sky believes it's on to a winner with this one because it's viewer friendly too: customers will be able to browse while continuing to watch their chosen programmes in the broadcast stream.

Tobin Ireland, Sky Interactive's commercial director, states: "The new service opens the door to retailers of any size to sell their products on Sky Active. There has always been demand for shopping services on TV, now we have a solution that will give viewers the product range that they are looking for and enhance the overall retail offer. Retailers can expect fast set-up and launch, minimal investment and commercial terms based on results."

Sounds fair enough, especially about terms based on results. Back in the bad old days of Open (what the Sky Active domain was initially called when it was launched back in 1999), they tended to play a curiously unhelpful version of hardball with prospective clients.

But that bit about demand for shopping services on TV will surprise many people. That's always been the problem, hasn't it? Ireland says 500,000 Sky households visit the shopping section each fortnight, which on the face of it looks good - but it's less than 10 per cent of the subscriber base and they're not exactly throwing money around when they get there.

The Sky annual report doesn't break out the retail revenue figure but total interactive revenues (including interactive spot ads, games and retail but excluding gambling) came to a puny £91 million. So it's not exactly changing the way we live out lives.

Paul Longhurst, a managing partner of the Allmond Partnership, agrees that first generation services never even came close to living up to the hype. He states: "When it first came along, the interactive TV area had a retail model close to the dotcom model. At Open they tended to say to retailers, 'Build a site with us and people will come.'" As it turned out, it wasn't as simple as that."

Indeed it wasn't. This new initiative is surely a reminder of just how disappointing t-commerce has been. There have been some consistent criticisms (not just on Sky but on the cable platforms too) over the past few years. First, that not enough people know it's there; second, that when they do find themselves in a virtual shopping mall, they're disappointed with the goods on offer; and third, even when they do find something they want, the purchasing mechanisms are clunky and cumbersome.

Ireland points out Sky Active is a significantly more sophisticated proposition than Open ever was. It now uses the more user-friendly wml software, for instance; and it will be more aggressively marketed, principally via onscreen promos within Sky programming.

It's too early to tell whether a reinvigorated Sky Active will give the sort of high-profile "press the red button" backing that enhanced news and sports programming gets these days on Sky. Interactive television has evolved rapidly this year, but most of the progress we've seen has been in programme content rather than on the commercial side.

On the other hand, Jacqui Church, a digital strategist at Zenith Interactive Solutions, argues that the greatest step forward would be to restore the link between interactive "click on the icon for more information" spot advertising and the Sky Active interactive retail domain behind the broadcast stream.

There would be more of a seamless interactive product - and spot advertising could stimulate increasing interest in the t-commerce zone.

She comments: "We've been running quite a few (interactive) broadcast campaigns but they're not linked through to Sky Active. There's a whole array of products that could increase their propensity of purchase if that option were available. And it would be to the benefit of all. It would benefit the brand, especially in cases where the brand itself stands for innovation and it would make more people aware that this portal exists."

Longhurst agrees that Sky has to find a way of creating a buzz in this side of the business once more. He sums up: "Broadly there's a been a real head of steam building behind the entertainment side of interactive TV. Now they need to link aspects of that to the interactive TV strategies of advertisers. From the media owners side they need to find a way to ease retailers back into this. There has to be a decent shopping mall there for consumers to explore.

"I think they would admit the business model before didn't work but I believe there's a genuine determination at Sky to find a way to make it work. Given their track record in other areas (of the digital multi-channel revolution), I don't think you'd bet against them."

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