The trouble for these merchants is that variances in users' computer equipment cause colors to display differently to different shoppers.
To help address the problem, computer imaging company Imation announced Verifi, a product designed to ensure that the colors shoppers see on their screens more closely resemble the colors of items they receive in the mail.
Analysts say retail on the Web is badly in need of truth in color advertising.
"The overriding issue is that consumers are less likely to make purchases if they're unsure about the representation of the merchandise," said Carol Ferrara, senior retail analyst with the Gartner Group. "This also happens frequently with paper catalogs: that people get something, and it doesn't look the way they expected it to. So they return it, and it winds up being a significant expense for both the consumer and the retailer."
Online retail spaces that need to sharpen color accuracy include fashion and apparel, cosmetics, materials and design, and to some degree automotive sales, Ferrara said.
The problem, she added, is particularly acute in the fashion area because clothiers' tend to assign fanciful names to their colors.
"They describe their merchandise in very nebulous terms such as 'sea foam,' or 'coral,'" she said. "And that kind of compounds the problem."
Imation is demonstrating Verifi at the Seybold Seminars Boston 2000 this week. The server-side software queries users about their computer monitor and compensates for color bias.