She may have come to buy a blouse, but she left having designed a five-piece fashion ensemble, acquired 100 likes and, yes, bought the blouse.
This is the experience, and increasingly the expectation, for more consumers as online shopping communities evolve. Basically online-only retailers that accommodate the shopper’s desire to follow, and offer, style advice, these sites are part Pinterest, part dating service and part international bazaar.
Partaking is a key to their appeal. Take the shopping experience at OpenSky, which bills itself as a matchmaker, “connecting the merchants selling that perfect something to shoppers looking for something perfect.” The site features more than 70,000 retailers across categories, so the product selection reflects that of an exotic Costco. There are strawberry coring tools and balsamic vinegar pearls in one area, LED dog leashes and presidential collectors’ coins in another.
However (as is apparently necessary for functioning shopping communities), the social experience is as important as — if not more than — the selection. On OpenSky, for instance, visitors can follow their favorite sellers, add products to personal wish lists and invite friends so they can earn points toward rewards.
Also, importantly, users of OpenSky can sell products themselves.
A Virtual Block Party
All of this is key to how social shopping communities turn the traditional retail model on its ear. While these communities use technology to imitate much of the physical shopping experience, they also take advantage of tech to enable thousands of human interactions regardless of users’ physical locations.
They are, essentially, cross-country (or -continental) retail block parties. Virtual strangers congregate to share, show off and shop style ideas. There’s also a lot of ratings (liking) and following, as is customary for social communities, to keep shoppers close. Very close.
Creating Fashion, Making Friends, Redefining Retail
Central to the success of social shopping is its ability to entertain the shopper, and that is a tall order. While visitors can be drawn to track the likes of a featured expert or style, that appeal can wear thin quickly. The chances are high the shopper will soon move on to the next shiny site.
Here’s how some other social shopping communities work to keep their users.
Described as the lovechild of Pinterest and Etsy, Fancy offers a range of personal and household items curated by its global community. Each user establishes a profile that shows what items they “Fancy’d” and can buy from thousands of different stores directly through the platform. The user can further share “Fancy’d” or purchased items with friends and earn credits toward purchases. Likewise, members can follow the profiles of others who use the site and choose what they want to appear in their own feeds. Members who sell through Fancy also have a chance to be featured on its home page along with targeted products.
Instead of boards, this social shopping network organizes its products into kits for activities that enrich peoples’ lives. A short list of these activities includes DJing, home improvement, hiking and cooking. The kits are organized by communities, some pretty niched, such as #boxing, #cars and #haircare, and each of which is managed by individual kit creators. With more than 100 featured creators dubbing themselves as fitness experts, musicians, photographers, authors, home design pros and more — each with his or her own offerings of kits — the site runs deep. Visitors also can hunt for, discuss, follow and purchase items (possibly to be redirected to a major retailer like Amazon).
A kind of digital mall, Wanelo sells itself as “All the best stores in one place.” When the shopper clicks on the square representing the retailer Entourage, she is directed to a board of its products. Wanelo is a community with brains, as well. The more a shopper visits the site and saves particular items, the more Wanelo uses the information to recommend products based on the user’s likes. Users also can be contributors, building collection boards of things they like, including goods from outside online retailers, and can buy and sell through Wanelo as well. Wanelo recognizes its top contributors across participating third-party merchants.
This is the community for aspiring fashionistas. Visitors join a global community of stylists, sharing advice on new looks, mixing and matching apparel items and spotting emerging fashion trends. They can create boards of fashion ensembles that others can like and comment on. A “white boots” trend board, for instance, leads to a series of individually entered boards by its community members. It’s not a pure shopping site, though consumers can buy an item by clicking through and eventually being directed to the selling merchant. Like Wanelo, Polyvore stores data regarding saved items to better understand shopper preferences and provide personalized product recommendations.
In a year’s time, any of these sites may be gone, merged with another or acquired by Amazon. In the interim, they are shaping the shopper experience, and expectations. That is the takeaway for all merchants, physical or digital: The communities of today shape those of tomorrow.