Shopping with friends, 2012-style

By Shamille Scott Business reporter

Sunday, July 22, 2012    

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Stilettos in gold and purple, trendy summer dresses, designer sunglasses, make-up and handbags flood the timelines of Facebook. The social media site, commonly used to connect with friends and family, has transformed itself into a virtual marketplace.

"I love these shoes. Do you have them in blue and size 8?" ask potential customers in the comment boxes.

Retailers and designers have taken to Facebook, Pinterest, Foursquare and Twitter in droves over the past year, creating a whole new industry - social commerce.

Constant updates of items in stock and sales are made, prompting users to visit real-world stores or make purchases online. Messaging systems that used to report on what people had for breakfast are now carrying enquiries and purchase orders.

And it's not just the giants. Small businesses are also taking to social commerce to promote and sell their goods.

"You can use the tool to engage customers," said Javette Nixon, a social-media marketing consultant. "For example, they can view products, which will prompt them to go into the store, if there is one."

Jaye-Ann O'Connor is one of those who does not have a physical shop. A diagnostic radiographer, she also designs, makes, and sells handbags and clothes, and uses social media to sell them.

"I cut costs by not paying anyone to market them," O'Connor said.

The process starts with O'Connor taking photos of the products and uploading them, typically several times a day, to Facebook and Twitter, where she has 500 followers.

Those followers not only buy her goods, they recommend them to others, by sharing photos, and spreading the news of sales.

Her clients use O'Connor's Facebook page and twitter feed not only to view her products, but to request fittings or delivery.

"I focus on getting products out without thinking of rent and paying workers," she said.

Social commerce is defined as user-generated advertising on e-commerce sites that enable shoppers to get advice from trusted individuals, find goods and services, and then purchase them.

But some companies may have a different focus. Some are looking for brand recognition, a way to provide customer service or a feedback mechanism to gauge customer feelings.

Pinterest lets people organise and share items on the web by pinning them in categories, they way you would post something to a corkboard in the real world.

Bookophilia, a bookshop in Kingston, 'pins' titles on Pinterest, indicating which categories it offers. Customers can "view what the store sells and preview books without coming into the store", said Sasha Solomon, its acting manager.

The site contributes to the visibility of the store, and hence its sales, Solomon said.

But immediate profit isn't everything, said Nixon. Social media can also be used to improve products through customer feedback, he said. The Returns come later.

Business whose customers have problems or are making pointed comments should address them right away, he said. Those that don't will find their customers will react by switching.

Some companies go on Facebook to make money, but instead of improving products by communicating, they turn customers off, Nixon said

"If you are going to be online, capitalise on all the social-media tools. Don't go into it half-heartedly," he said.

Many companies use social media but don't get a return on it because they don't engage the customers, he said. "It's a balancing act," said Nixon. "Don't push making money without communicating with customers."

Facebook has applications such as ShopTab, which allows business owners to sell products by creating a shopping tab on their fan pages. It works with most e-commerce platforms.

A shop owner can export products from an e-commerce tool and upload them to Facebook.

"For us, it is to increase the bottom line; our sales are driven by Facebook; so we are consistent with updates on Facebook and responses to customers," said Castelle Barnes, marketing director of Club Intuition, a membership boutique in St Andrew.

The store has been open for three months and its customers can shop from Facebook. It has over 9, 000 likes on the site. Barnes said the store's customers see the products that boutique offers and make a budget from home.

Customers can buy on Facebook after viewing items for sale and make bank deposits as well as payments though Western Union, Barnes said.

Content is king in social media, so use videos and photos, said Nixon.





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