The Report

E-commerce gets social

E-commerce gets social

Posting in Technology

Startups like Fab, Fancy, Svpply, Wish and Wanelo are using social networks to transform the digital shopping experience.

Shopping has always been a fun mix of browsing, buying, recommendations and feedback. For decades, shoppers would keep wish lists of coveted products in the form of dog-eared catalogs or fashion magazines, or simply in their heads. Then came the Internet, and bookmark tabs were invented. Our dog-ears dwindled and our lists, along with everything else, turned digital.

Indeed, retail’s second home on the Web exposes consumers to masses of products that were either unattainable or difficult to find before. But how to find what you really want? That's the question that a new wave of "social commerce" startups seeks to answer. These sites leverage social network technology to sift and sort recommendations for digital shoppers.

"The entire Internet is getting reorganized around people," says Sean Flannagan, vice president of product at one of these social commerce sites, Wanelo. "We have social networks now for seemingly every basic human need -- Facebook for friends, LinkedIn for careers, YouTube for videos, Twitter for news, Instagram for photos -- but there hasn’t been a single­-focus platform of this nature for shopping."

Social commerce sites -- Svpply, Fancy, Fab, Wish and Wanelo to name a few -- offer different approaches to this problem but one thing is consistent across all of them: shopping is a curated and social experience during which you are guided by friends, peers (and often total strangers with good taste) to items you might actually buy.

Perhaps the best known company of this bunch, Wanelo was founded in 2010 by Deena Varshavskaya on the premise that online shopping was primitive compared to its real-life counterpart. To Varshavskaya, "it didn't make sense that you couldn’t see where a person shopped if you liked their style, or that you couldn’t go to one place to follow all the stores and products you like," Flannagan says.

Wanelo separates itself from the pack with the claim that it is the only social commerce site where products are posted by users. There's no advertising; visitors just see items other people think might be worth their time. Wanelo also actively makes sure every featured item can be purchased somewhere. Other sites have been criticized for promoting items, but failing to stop featuring them after they are no longer available.

Wanelo members can add buttons to their browsers, so they can keep track of things on their own (this service is offered by most of its competitors as well.) Wanelo’s 10 million registered users can browse items from more than 200,000 online stores, ranging from big brands to independents. They can collect products, follow stores and people, see what’s trending from around the site, and post products found independently.

"People discover products through the people they're connected to, and they're increasingly immune to advertising," Flannagan says. "It's almost like we're entering an age similar to the time before advertising as we know it existed, but this time the influence of other people is amplified by the technology we use."

Photo courtesy of Wanelo
 

Wanelo has an editorial side, where users, retailers and brands can post anecdotes about products to share with followers. The idea is to speak to customers’ desire to know the story and context behind certain items.

From the merchant perspective, social commerce makes sense because retailers can identify which customers are posting the most content from a particular brand or store, giving them a more direct connection with the consumers who are most likely to buy their inventory. Using Wanelo, a retailer can see which products are trending and promote them on its own home page. The folks at Wanelo see this as a way for brands to build lasting relationships with customers.

It's not the same as the over-the-counter, dressing-room advice you get in person, but it's close.

(Thumnail photo courtesy of Photos.com/Imagegap)

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Beth Carter

Contributing Editor

Beth Carter is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has worked for Catalyst magazine, the New York Times Syndicate, BBC Travel and Wired. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure