June 17, 2011, 3:25 PM

IRCE 2011 Report: Social media can help retailers build relationships with consumers

Drs. Foster & Smith leverages Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to draw shoppers in.

Lead Photo

Gordon Magee, Internet director, web retailer Drs. Foster & Smith

It used to be that consumers would shop at the retailers in their town. They’d pop in after church or before the movies, and the merchant’s employees would get to know their customers and their customers would get to know them.

But that’s not the way most people shop anymore. And, even for those shoppers that still operate that way, online retailers don’t have the luxury of building those relationships in person, said Gordon Magee, director, Internet, at online pet supplies retailer Drs. Foster and Smith, today at the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition 2011 in San Diego. But social media can enable online retailers to build those types of relationships—and with many more consumers.

Social media is ultimately about building relationships with consumers, said Magee. “Sometimes it’s still a little at arm’s length, but that’s the world we live in as online retailers,” he said.

Drs. Foster and Smith aims to foster relationships with customers by tapping into what pet owners are thinking about. For instance, during a hot spell last summer, Magee and his staff quickly put together questions about how to mitigate the effects of rising temperatures on dogs, then grabbed one of the retailer's three staff veterinarians to create an impromptu question-and-answer video that Magee posted within two hours of crafting the questions. The video features Magee posing questions to veterinarian Holly Nash. Nash dispenses tips ranging from giving a dog a cool, wet towel to lie on to checking to see if its body temperature rises above what's normal for the animal—a maximum of 103 degrees Fahrenheit.

Magee uploaded the video on YouTube, as well as posted a links to the video on Facebook and Twitter.

“We look for something that will go viral, that they’ll want to forward on that can be helpful,” he said.

Social media cannot be focused on spurring a sale, he said. At Drs. Foster and Smith the marketing message is often on the right or left margins of the pages. The primary goal is building a two-way communication channel with customers.

That’s also the goal for plus-size women’s apparel retailer igigi.com, said Yuliya Raquel, the retailer’s founder and lead designer., who spoke alongside Magee.

“It enables us to stay current on what’s important to our customers,” she said. “What are the issues they face?”

Igigi also uses Facebook to pose questions to consumers about what types of pleats, cuts or eveningwear they’d like Igigi to offer. That, she said, turns the retailer’s Facebook page into a virtual focus group.

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