Social commerce has been something of a buzz phrase in the retail industry recently, and it's not hard to see why: Merchants are trying to get you to buy their goods wherever is most convenient for you. And so, they reason, why not have you shop within the sites you already visit several times a day?
Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter are looking for ways to keep you engaged in their digital ecosystems anyway, and new offerings such as shopping could help with that.
That has led to a flurry of social shopping experiments, including a plan announced by Facebook this week to test a shopping feed within its app that is designed to help users discover new products and buy them seamlessly.
The tech company did not offer many details about how the feature would work, but it said for now only a select group of users would see it and that it would showcase only a limited number of items from small businesses. It also appears from a screenshot posted by Facebook that the shopping tool will have a product-search function allowing users to search for specific items instead of just browsing through recent posts.
This shopping destination within Facebook would be different in a crucial way from the retailer ads that currently flow into your news feed between your best friend's baby pictures and your cousin's political rants: It will require you to proactively to choose to shop, rather than simply get sucked into it by chance.
"We're going from a paradigm of ads being a push to consumers to being more of a pull," said Rachel Brooks, a strategy consultant at ThoughtWorks Retail. "So people are requesting content from brands, shops and retailers, instead of looking at them as more of a roadblock."
Also, it means that none of the transaction happens on the retailer's own Web site, meaning stores will have a bit less control over how you experience their brand.
Facebook's announcement follows a spate of tests across various social network with "buy buttons," which are meant to make it easy to make nearly one-click purchases of items you see on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. Major chains such as Nordstrom, Macy's, Neiman Marcus and Home Depot have participated in at least one of the tests in hope of being at the leading edge of a new chapter in digital commerce.
But so far, retailers and the social networks have offered few updates on whether such social commerce offerings have gained major traction. It calls to mind the lack of information that's been disclosed about Apple Pay adoption: In both cases, it seems like the tech companies and merchants would be trumpeting the number of active users or the amount of dollars that move across the platform if either was a particularly impressive figure. So we're left to infer that uptake isn't particularly impressive.
And that raises a crucial question for the companies trying to create ways for us to shop on social channels: "Is it just a matter of time, or are social media firms trying to force an unnatural act?" wonders Scott Galloway, a professor who teaches marketing and branding at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Galloway said it seems that perhaps people view social networks as more of the digital equivalent of a hanging out at a bar — a place where it feels right to socialize, but would seem awfully weird to buy a sweater or a plane ticket.
The challenges of social commerce mirror the challenges seen so far with mobile commerce more broadly: Retailers have seen a strong surge in the number of people engaging with their brands on mobile, and yet do not see commensurate uptick in the number of people actually making purchases on these devices. There is evidence that this is because people get frustrated with the mobile experience, giving up on making a purchase when there are too many steps or too much typing. If tools such as this Facebook shopping feed catch on, it will likely be because they've effectively solved this problem and made it easy for shoppers to spend on the small screen.