The online merchandiser's selling toolkit contains all kinds of drills to tap into online markets. The most eye-popping of these markets, the Bosch Swarovski crystal-studded power drill of the online world, is the untapped sector of Facebook. While all manner of Like and Share buttons proliferate across the Internet, the e-commerce potential of Facebook has yet to fully reveal itself.
Social commerce, especially on Facebook, or even on Twitter, is not an entirely new concept. Retailers have been kicking around the idea of F-commerce for a while. While progress to date has not been astronomical, can a profitable future be seen in Madame Lenormand's F-commerce crystal ball?
"I think Facebook and Amazon will be squaring off as the two e-commerce titans in the future," Bob Pearson, author of Pre-Commerce, told the Financial Times recently (subscription required).
In China, social media giant Renren believes its future will revolve around e-commerce. In fact, chief executive Joseph Chen expects more than 50 percent of the site's revenue to come from e-commerce in the very near future, far eclipsing the revenue from advertisements. (Look for more analysis of this potential in our next post, Does Facebook Stand a Chance?)
So far, the numbers seem to point in the direction of a bright future for F-commerce. While Amazon is hands-down the market leader for e-commerce, Facebook has 500 million active users spending more than 11.5 billion hours a month on the site. Investors continue to be wide-eyed by Facebook's potential. A recent sale by Interpublic of half of its Facebook shares implied that Facebook's value is north of $66 billion. With that kind of user base and market potential, how can online retailers stay away?
As F-commerce becomes a buzzword and more companies dive into the deep waters of social sharing and selling that Facebook offers, the true test of success will be retailers' ability to seamlessly integrate their e-commerce experience with the social platform.
While most retailers have not taken the full in-Facebook store plunge, several high-profile companies have. To gauge how those retailers are doing, we thought we'd put our stethoscope to their Facebook stores and offer our diagnosis.
Delta is an oft-cited example of in-Facebook selling. But with the magic of two simple screen shots from our experience in trying to book a flight through their Facebook store, I will show why they still have a long way to go.
After successfully filling out the requisite forms, I was met with a wait screen. Travel sites reference a huge database, so a certain amount of wait time was to be expected. But the third time I saw this screen in the same booking process, I began to reconsider what the real problem was.
(Repeat this image three times for a complete experience.)
After patiently waiting, I was met with this:
If you are a parent and are ready to have the Sex talk with your kid, we suggest you do so while trying to book a ticket through Delta's Facebook site. You'll have more than enough time to cover all questions in great detail.
But if you want to buy the ticket before your flight takes off, we recommend you skip Delta's Facebook store and go straight to delta.com. In fact, the experience is so poor, we wonder why Delta doesn't just take it down, out of fear of alienating customers entirely.
Another talked-about site, 1-800-Flowers, has achieved success in some areas. For example, you can actually buy something without ever leaving Facebook and without any of the problems we experienced with Delta.
1-800-Flowers also does a pretty good job of merchandising their content through the social platform (although I predict days of more user-generated information--stay tuned for a coming post on this prediction).
However, they lose some points for the current size of the store. With just four options available, I suspect the flower retailer has a way to go before they will see strong revenue growth from their Facebook platform.
Also, the search function is, well, a bit lacking. When I searched for "rose," no results were found. But wait, isn't the above product description for roses? (Yes, it is. There, I saved your finger from excess scrolling. How nice am I!)
Most Facebook retailers use the platform to pull customers into the buying process, and then kick them off Facebook in favor of their own websites to complete the process. The problem with this strategy is that the transition from Facebook to a retailer's site can be jarring or off-putting (kind of like the proper Anne Hathaway rapping à la Lil' Wayne. Oh wait, that was awesome).
In the case of Barcelona FC, the transition is relatively seamless.
The experience begins with an abbreviated storefront ...
... and continues with an abbreviated product description. (So abbreviated, in fact, that it would be invisible were it not for the bright yellow background.)
If you click "add to basket," the buying adventure takes you to the distant land of shop.fcbarcelona.com, away from the kingdom of Facebook. (Don't worry, they speak English there.)
While it is an easy and relatively seamless process, Barcelona takes the chance that in the process of luring consumers from familiar Facebook grounds, they will not become distracted enough to abandon their carts.
JCPenney, sort of. With a full in-Facebook experience and a relatively robust store offering, this retailer is a pioneer of the F-commerce field.
(You may recall that JCPenney was one of the poster children of unfair SEO play that led, in part, to Google's Panda update.)
In short, while our JCPenny experience on Facebook was not perfect, ultimately it led to the successful purchase of a T-shirt for the daughter of one of our employees. Here is how it went:
I started at the home page ...
... and browsed around until I found something I wanted to buy. So far, so good.
Here is where I started to experience glitches. I asked myself, "Elizabeth, what about the Monaco Blue Butterfly shirt? That looks cool. Let's take a closer look!"
But my efforts were thwarted; there were no additional images, no zoom, and no image swapping. So I could not get a close-up view of the design. Additionally, I had no idea what material this shirt was made out of, no clue whether these were standard sizes, and no idea where the shirt was manufactured. What if I was about to buy a Malaysian sweatshop shirt made of recycled golf-cart tires?
While JCPenney's content merchandising efforts leave everything to be desired, they take full advantage of one of the most valuable features of Facebook selling: user-generated comments. I like to think that I'm popular and respected enough that I could have started a buying rage among my Facebook friends with a few choice words and a mouse click. This is the potential of F-commerce: the ability to immediately syndicate comments on a product that friends can impulsively purchase without leaving the site.
I bought the shirt.
Ta-da! In five days as promised, we received the shirt. (And in case you're wondering, it was manufactured in Vietnam of 100% cotton. No recycled tire materials, as far as we can tell.)
Clearly, companies (and Facebook) still have to make significant progress before the social media behemoth can compete with Amazon on an e-commerce level. But the potential for selling through the site can be ignored only at significant risk to online retailers. Stay tuned for more analysis about the Amazon-Facebook standoff.