Shopping Goes Social

Facebook isn’t just for finding high school flames and playing Farmville anymore—for a growing number of users, the ubiquitous social network is the latest place to find toys and apparel for their tots. According to a recent survey by NPD Group, a consumer market research firm that tracks the apparel industry, 80 percent of moms […]

Facebook isn’t just for finding high school flames and playing Farmville anymore—for a growing number of users, the ubiquitous social network is the latest place to find toys and apparel for their tots. According to a recent survey by NPD Group, a consumer market research firm that tracks the apparel industry, 80 percent of moms in America use social media of some kind, and of those, 25 percent have made purchases as a direct result of reading about an item on a social media site. For children’s apparel retailers, the growing popularity of the new social commerce marketplace can be a golden opportunity to boost sales and find new customers.

But setting up a successful Facebook storefront can be as complicated as building a brick-and-mortar. So what’s the appeal? For many merchants, it’s the chance to go viral when one person shares a favorite product with friends and the recommendation is passed along within a social network. And since the average Facebook user has 130 friends, the opportunity to recruit new customers is exponential. Interested in setting up shop on Facebook? Here’s how.

Pick Your Platform

Just as social shopping has increased, so have the number of platforms that support Facebook commerce. Currently, retailers must use an application to upload a storefront on Facebook, but the options are becoming surprisingly sophisticated. “I opened up a shop through Payvment, and it’s worked out really well,” says Denise Erickson, owner of children’s accessories brand Sweet Bitty Bows, based in Albuquerque, NM. Erickson moved her online storefront to Facebook last year, when the fees from craft marketplace Etsy became too steep and she realized Payvment was priced just right: free.

Platforms like Payvment, 8thBridge and Highwire Commerce allow shoppers to complete a purchase without leaving Facebook, as opposed to storefronts that direct shoppers to another e-commerce service to complete the transaction (usually on a company website). “It’s just easier because people don’t want to be directed off Facebook,” says Joelle Musante, senior vice president at Payvment. “They’re there for 2 1⁄2 hours a day, so if you try to direct them off Facebook, they’re going to go right back,” Musante says, comparing the notion to selling a car. “If you have them on the lot and they’re ready to buy, are you going to send them down the street to close the deal, or are you going to close the deal while they have their wallets open?”

But for some children’s brands, like 1-year-old company Bay & Trey Children’s Apparel, it’s more convenient to use a site like BigCommerce that allows merchants to fuse their Facebook store with their e-commerce site. “Once we got our website [with e-commerce] running, we were able to link the website to the Facebook page,” explains owner Samantha Hirsh. “That was really great for us, because a lot of people hear about me and know about me, but they don’t actually sit down and go to my website. But when they’re on Facebook and constantly see the links and updates from my page, they go to the website.”

Stay Socially Savvy

While social commerce may be catching on with buyers, the vast majority of Facebook users log on to the site to keep up with friends—and experts say blatant product pitches are often the fastest way to turn off potential shoppers. “My first recommendation is to build a relationship [with the customer],” suggests Lora Cecere, an analyst at Altimeter Group, a technology consulting firm. “The social [aspect] has to precede the transaction. There has to be a reason for them to come and visit your page.”

Using your Facebook wall to post information and foster discussion is key to building trust and maintaining a good rapport with your existing customers and finding new ones, says Musante at Payvment. “You have to own your category,” she explains. “If you sell organic handmade children’s sweaters, you could talk about how to care for organic wool, and be the go-to person on organic wool. Then, when they’re ready to make a purchase, they’re going to go to you because they trust you.”

Nikki Graves, owner of Ladybugs and Lizards children’s boutique in Edmond, OK, says original, engaging posts are the best way to bring new visitors to her Facebook store. “Right now we’re doing a photo contest with our photographer, and you need to ‘like’ our page to vote on the photo of the child,” she says, noting that a lot of local children are featured in the photos—enticing family and friends to join in the voting. “That’s been the best thing that we’ve done to bring people to the page,” she says. She also awarded a gift certificate to her 1,000th fan and offers a once-a-month sale just for Facebook fans.

Yet while promotions and special offers can be a great way to drive new visitors to your Facebook store, marketing pros agree they should be used sparingly. “One out of 10 wall posts can be an offer, but the other nine should be community-related discussions,” recommends Justin Kistner, senior manager of social media marketing at web analytics firm Webtrends. Self-promotional updates and links to blog posts and Twitter will simply drive visitors away and alienate your fans, Kistner explains. “That’s not the type of interaction people go to Facebook for,” he adds. “People want to talk more about their personal lives, opinions and feelings, and they want interactive discussions— not one-way information.” Even product posts should spark conversation, says Mitchell Harper, co-founder and chief technology officer at BigCommerce. “Popular items should be posted on Facebook, but don’t just link to your product pages. Create useful videos and blog posts—content that your fans will find interesting,” he suggests.

Frequent updates will also keep fans and visitors coming to your page for more. “You want to update it daily, so people see it every day,” Graves suggests—but don’t go overboard, she cautions. “Post several times a day, but don’t bombard [your customers] or bug them.”

Set Up Shop

“Definitely try to create a unique shopping experience within Facebook,” says John Underwood, chief operating officer of Adgregate, a technology company that offers Facebook commerce services to retailers. “Don’t just replicate your website,” he adds. “List Facebook-only merchandise, first looks, or special offers. Make it unique so the sales channel can stand on its own and complement the existing website.” Cecere points out that the products “that are getting the most traction are the things that are emotional buys, like flowers, books, baby items and cosmetics.” Kistner at Webtrends suggests beginning with top sellers and items that have “high sociability”—products that people are excited to share with friends. “Facebook is like the Jersey Shore of the social media world,” he explains. “The things that we’re interested in are less about heady, in-depth topics and more about light, fun things. A lot of the things we buy are statements about our identity and those are the things we like to talk about. They translate really well into the social commerce space.”

Knowing your customers—and how they shop—is another crucial component to setting up your storefront. Erickson at Sweet Bitty Bows decided to list just her basic items on the site, since Payvment only allows six photos per page. “As I’m shopping on Facebook, and I want something really specific, I don’t want to go through pages and pages of items,” she explains. As for Graves at Ladybugs and Lizards, her Facebook store contains a wide array of price points, while her website e-commerce shop focuses mainly on high-end products—a perfect strategy since high price point items are often harder to sell on Facebook, Underwood notes.

In addition to making your store unique, don’t forget to keep it spruced up, Erickson suggests. “Make sure that your pictures are good and your item descriptions are pretty clear,” she says. Graves retouches her own pictures in Photoshop, but Harper suggests that, “if you don’t have the time or budget to take photos, then ask your suppliers for their photos. Most times they will have high resolution photos you can use.”

Get a Head Start

While the buzz for social shopping may be building, the marketplace definitely won’t be unseating traditional e-commerce or brick-and-mortar locations anytime soon. According to a two-year study by Forrester Research and Shop.org, “social networks fail to drive meaningful revenue for eBusiness professionals in retail, have a questionable return on investment, and are generally ineffective as customer acquisition tools,” says Sucharita Mulpuru, the study’s author. Yet Cecere notes that Facebook commerce may be reaching its tipping point: In a recent Altimeter Group survey, 86 percent of 123 top retailers and manufacturers plan to have a social commerce strategy in place by the end of 2011. In fact, more and more brands are jumping on the Facebook bandwagon. Online retail behemoth Amazon partnered with Procter & Gamble in October for its first Facebook e-commerce site—a Pampers store geared toward moms, selling an array of products for home and baby. Clearly, big brands are convinced that parents are the perfect Facebook audience.

But is Facebook a good fit for smaller children’s merchants as well? Mulpuru found in her study that social commerce is ideal for small brands looking to establish an online presence as well as local businesses—an apt description of many children’s manufacturers and retailers. Not to mention, sales may not be brisk on Facebook at the moment, but setting up a Facebook shop now is one way to edge out the competition in a relatively untapped area. “Selling online is cheaper, faster and easier than setting up a brick-and-mortar store, and billions of dollars are spent online every week, so the longer you wait, the smaller your piece of the pie will be,” Harper notes. —Audrey Goodson

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