June 1, 2007, 12:00 AM

Socialize First, Shop Second

(Page 2 of 2)

“In online shopping we have some great sites where you can compare features and price. For example, take three digital cameras and look at their mega-pixels and brands and then once you decide, the sites show six retailers you can buy from,” Chandra says. “But these sites are very much geared toward price-centric and feature-centric products, as well as the male point of view for shopping, which is, if I can shop in 4 1/2 minutes, all the better.”

Sales of such merchandise as fashion and accessories and home and garden are growing in e-commerce; these are centered on what an individual shopper wants based on her unique preferences, Chandra adds.

“Here the whole paradigm of comparison shopping gets turned on its head. At a comparison site you cannot really get any added value to an experience. You get what amounts to an aggregated catalog with prices,” he says. “With social sites, you can play to the increasing number of female shoppers online. They like to engage in shopping and look at many items before they buy. These factors have led to a perfect storm where social shopping has started to explode in a big way.”

Independence

Independence is perhaps the key ingredient that set off the explosion. For online shoppers, having a site independent of retailers on which they can network and chat has the potential to outshine retailer site-based consumer product reviews, says Kevin Ryan, CEO and co-founder of ShopWiki Corp., which receives between 100,000 and 200,000 unique visitors every month. ShopWiki sells advertising space and is getting into affiliate marketing programs.

“People want independent advice and reviews,” Ryan says, “and they’re not getting that on comparison and other kinds of sites.”

Scanning social shopping sites, one quickly sees there are a great many users quite happy with the concept and the results. But shoppers aren’t the only ones with smiles on their faces.

“Retailers are very happy because they’re getting what amounts to free advertising,” Ryan says. “Thousands of products show up on our site, and shoppers are sent from those listings straight to an e-retailer’s site. It’s really no different from Google: Is a retailer happy to show up on Google for free? Yes.”

But with “free advertising” independently posted by shoppers unknown to merchants comes the risk of brand damage. This requires retailers to monitor social shopping sites and learn how best to participate, experts say.

“Retailers have to figure out how to engage with these communities,” Kaboodle’s Chandra says. “In ours, retailers can create profiles and interact. They need to declare in their profile they are a retailer, though, so users know a retailer is not pretending to be something else.”

Being honest and straightforward when addressing any brand concerns is the best way to make an impact on a social shopping site, says Dalnes of Panasonic. “You should put yourself out there and make yourself available,” he advises. “Many times consumers think you’re a large company and what will their individual voice do to make a difference. But when they see you respond, it creates affinity for your brand.”

Monitoring chat

Protecting a brand and responding to customers and potential customers requires retailers to monitor social shopping sites-and there’s no way to do so other than to have a staff member personally dig in to user-generated content. Whether it’s done on a routine, weekly basis or a more periodic schedule, retailers need to keep an eye on social shopping chat and recommendations, retailers and experts say.

At AbeBooks, members of the marketing team regularly scan numerous social shopping sites for references to their shop as well as to better understand what shoppers are looking for and follow the larger trend of Web 2.0 activity. The responsibility to monitor and respond if deemed appropriate or necessary was given to -marketing staff members because they, by nature, know the goals of the company and how to reach out to shoppers, COO Wertz says.

“You could have a full-time person looking at all these social web opportunities all day, every day with the volume of information out there. There are so many social things being tried that you have to take a step back and see which are playing out and which are not,” Wertz says. “You have to carefully evaluate sites first and then decide what merits time and attention.”

Chandra of Kaboodle suggests retailers have affiliate managers keep an eye on social shopping sites because these staff members are intimately familiar with following customer desires and wrangling shoppers to their e-commerce sites.

In general, monitoring is not an option, it’s a necessity, and brand protection is not the only reason merchants should keep an eye on social shopping sites.

“Retailers should be -monitoring these sites-all retailers,” says Mary Brett Whitfield, senior vice president at Retail Forward Inc., a research and consulting firm specializing in retailing and consumer products marketing. “It’s a way to tap into what the current -thinking is and what the trends are,” Whitfield says. “There is a generation of consumers in their tweens, teens and twenties that are heavily using these sites. And as they move into prime spending years, they will become important references for retailers.”

10 years ago it was very unusual for someone to go to an e-commerce store and be able to figure out if there was anyone else using the site-but that has changed, StyleFeeder’s Jacob says. “Now it’s quite normal for people to -collaborate online-YouTube being a perfect example,” he says. “It’s not a relationship between a web site and a user anymore, but between users and other users.”
bill@verticalwebmedia.com

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