By  on June 19, 2007

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Anticipated growth in high-speed Internet connectivity has retailers toying with bandwidth-hungry Web site features they would not have considered last year.

Streaming video, podcasts, 360-degree viewing and product customization tools were once only on the wish lists of many, convinced that not enough homes had the broadband access needed to run these features properly. That view is changing, and with new confidence that faster Internet connections will be the norm, retailers are ready to say "go" to adding Web site interactivity that engages shoppers, creates social communities and ultimately builds loyalty.

"We are in a lot better shape than some of the headlines would lead you to believe…that we are in horrible decline in broadband deployment, behind Denmark, behind every Third World despot nation on the planet," said David McClure, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Internet Industry Association.

He spoke here in Silicon Valley earlier this month at the Internet Retailer show, which drew more than 3,000 Web merchants and 1,100 technology vendors. The conference and exhibition were organized by Vertical Web Media of Chicago.

McClure said 85 percent of U.S. households will have broadband Internet access by 2012, which is in line with projections cited by other speakers. Estimates on today's broadband access varied more widely, however, from a low of 55 percent to a high of 67 percent.

J.C. Penney Co. Inc.'s Craig Horsley, manager of site operations for jcp.com, whose sales hit $1.3 billion in 2006, said Penney's customers are ready for advanced Web site tools that require high-speed connectivity. He said more than 70 percent of jcp.com shoppers use a broadband connection, such as a DSL (digital subscriber line) or cable modem.

Last year, jcp.com launched an online feature that helps consumers design, configure and accurately measure window treatments. The results: sales up 20 percent over plan, product returns decreased and repeat site visits increased, Horsley said.

Later, an interactive tool was added to let shoppers create their own "bed in a bag" and view the resulting bedroom outfitted with their chosen pillows, sheets, comforters and window treatments. Horsley said sales rose 290 percent, but Penney's could not be sure if sales were driven entirely by the new feature, if the financial plan was flawed or a combination of both.

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