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Every morning when Juliesa Adolphus (a.k.a. @lavishandflawed) wakes up, she checks her phone. But she’s not scrolling through her feeds for the latest breaking news or looking for missed messages; she’s actually scouring social media for new clothes. The twentysomething’s preferred platform? Instagram—although she uses Pinterest, Facebook and YouTube, too.
Adolphus, a Brampton, Ont. administrative assistant, regularly spots fashionable clothes in social media posts and, thanks to the rise of “social e-commerce”—a.k.a., the relatively new ability to shop straight from social media apps—quickly scoops them up.
It’s the next evolution of online shopping, but Adolphus isn’t just another fashion-focused consumer. Her unique knack for finding fashionable clothes has earned her upwards of 5,000 Instagram followers, and when she posts something on the app, fans notice. As a “micro-influencer,” a term applied to social media users with a highly engaged but relatively small fan base, she wields considerable power. In fact, while many don’t know it yet, it’s little-known stars like her that are popularizing social shopping—and helping brands turn social likes into real-life buys.
The rise of “social shopping”
The shopping landscape has changed drastically over the last decade. Online and social shopping is on the rise, while brick and mortar stores are struggling. Last year was not a great one for Canadian retailers, and it was a similar story in the U.S., where a record 7,000 retail stores, including stalwarts like Sears and The Limited, announced they’d be closing some or all of their locations. According to a 2018 PricewaterhouseCoopers report on real estate trends in the U.S. and Canada, the retail industry is facing challenges that include the closure of major department stores and smaller mid-price apparel brands, a decline in foot traffic at most retail centres and the fact that new retail brands are opening at a slower and slower pace. Not all of that can be blamed on online shopping, but there’s no denying it’s playing a role… or that social media will likely change things even more.
Even before users could shop directly from their fave social media app, platforms like Facebook, Instagram and the dearly departed Polyvore were setting the stage for social shopping. A 2013 report from e-commerce platform Shopify identified social media as an important discovery tool, though it didn’t necessarily lead to a significant bump in sales. (Shopify said 529,000 of the year’s 22.7 million orders, or just over 2%, could be traced back to ads or posts on Facebook, while Instagram users were spending more on average than almost any other platform.) In 2014, Twitter rolled out a now-shuttered ‘buy’ button, and in 2015, Facebook partnered with Shopify to allow the e-commerce platform’s customers to “showcase and sell their product on Facebook Pages.” But by 2016, social media still wasn’t making a broad impact on sales—according to a Business of Fashion report, which referenced data by research firm L2, “only about 1.5 percent of online sales in 2016 can be attributed to social media, even if 75 percent of shoppers discover products there… Brands therefore consider Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat as media and advertising plays, with the hope that they will be well positioned when retail on social platforms becomes common practice.”)
Needless to say, things have changed a bit since then. Pinterest and Instagram, which launched its own shopping service in March 2018, have found more moderate success with their click-to-buy options. The latter will even soon start offering in-app purchases, which will allow consumers to shop without ever having to leave its fashionable cocoon.
Facebook and Instagram are winning the social shopping game
Right now, two platforms dominate when it comes to shopping on social media: Facebook and Instagram. Part of that likely comes down to size—by last year, Instagram had 800 million monthly active users; its parent company, Facebook, boasts 2.2 billion monthly active users. But the platforms themselves have also made design decisions specifically to make shopping easier.
“Social media has evolved, but in particular with e-commerce,” says Brian Peters, a digital marketing strategist at Buffer, a social media management platform that launched in 2010. “In 2016, social marketing was just coming on the scene and Instagram didn’t have shopping features. Now Instagram and Facebook have e-commerce specific features on their platform, like easy-to-use ‘buy’ buttons and custom marketplaces. They no longer have to be the middle person that connects to brands.”
And the way shoppers decide what to buy has shifted, too. Fashion purchases were once almost exclusively dictated by what celebrities were spotted wearing, the looks fashion houses sent down the runway and what was on display at the local mall. Now, influencers are growing in, well, influence—especially over how, and where, millennial women spend their money. According to PopSugar Insights, the market research division of the San Francisco-based media company, 94% of American millennial women say influencers, “are important in helping them make their beauty and personal care purchasing decisions.” (We can also chalk up at least part of their rising authority to a whole new generation of shoppers that no longer trust celeb endorsements.)
Shopping on Instagram is putting some indie retailers on the map
Joanna Griffiths has seen firsthand how social media is influencing her customers’ shopping habits. The Canadian entrepreneur is the founder and CEO of Knixwear, an intimate apparel company that ships its products around the world. Unlike other fashion brands, Knixwear relies on social media and the online marketplace to promote, pitch and sell their goods. That means no billboards, TV adverts or radio jingles—just curated online photos, strategically placed Facebook posts and pop culture-infused tweets. Every caption, photoshoot or even product colour is influenced or designed with their social fans in mind. The company’s social following also heavily influences its product design.
“Social media has changed the game now. We spend a lot of time making sure that when you come to our social feed that we’re showcasing diverse body types so you can see something in your size and buy it right then and there,” Griffiths says.
She believes that Knixwear’s shoppers often feel a deeper connection with the diverse women in their posts and then opt to buy the products they’re wearing as a result. It’s a new form of marketing that is directly tied to its new social shopping playbook. In fact, social shoppers not only make up Knixwear’s customer base, but a large percentage of their models. People who visit their page not only join their online community, but can potentially take part in their advertisements and buy from them, all in one place at one time.
And big brands are getting in on the trend, too
More established companies are jumping on the trend, too. Take Roots Canada. The quintessential Canadian brand has managed to turn social media sales into an art. They use their Instagram and Facebook platforms to sell goods and provide a peek into their brand through posts that can rack up thousands of likes and shares. In any given season, Roots works with 20 to 30 micro- and macro-influencers from a range of industries, including Canadian crooners Jessie Reyez and Daniel Caesar, who they’ve repeatedly featured in their social media and shoppable posts.
“We feel Roots’ [social media] has to play a role in allowing people to have much more direct and behind-the-scenes connection with the company,” says James Connell, vice president of e-commerce and marketing. And, that’s not all. Social shopping has given executives like James a new way to see just how receptive audiences are to new posts. “We value engagement and impressions at Roots. With shoppable Instagram posts, we have consumers who can see it, go to the product page and buy it and that makes it very measurable.”
And it’s working. Roots has seen an increase in brand awareness—and sales—since launching shoppable Instagram posts, proving that if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a social post is easily worth a million dollars.
The downsides to shopping on social media
But while the rise of social media shopping has been good for brands, there are downsides for consumers. Fatima Zaidi, the vice-president of business development for Toronto-based marketing agency Eighty-Eight, says shopping via Instagram or Facebook (ironically) encourages consumers to detach themselves from the inherent social aspects associated with buying the latest goods, and conditions us to thoughtlessly buy more and more.
“The old habit we used to have—going to the mall with friends—at least allowed us to socialize, to get out of the house and connect. It required us to participate well beyond the ‘purchase’ button,” she says. “Now, we get the immediate gratification, but without the social aspect.”
Zaidi isn’t wrong; companies are increasingly utilizing technology to offer same-day shipping, or even just a more streamlined checkout process, all in a bid to sell more. And that’s just one of the ways social shopping can lead to consumerism. It’s also deeply connected to fast fashion, which has created a throw-away culture where shoppers must constantly buy new clothing to stay on top of the trends—and discard things just as quickly. In a recent Australian survey, millennials were more likely than boomers to throw out clothing within two years—and, almost 25% of millennials said half (or more!) of their clothing had been purchased in the previous year.
Unsurprising, social media also plays into impulse shopping. A February 2018 survey by insurance company Allianz Life found 57% of American millennials spent money they hadn’t planned to because of their social media feeds. It’s actually becoming a big enough problem that, last year, the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets launched its own awareness campaign to combat the issue.
An alternative take on social shopping
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Interestingly, another social media app, Bunz, is providing a more environmentally friendly version of social e-commerce. The millennial-focused online marketplace, which started as a Facebook group, allows users to trade everything from dressers to makeup, but is best-known for its killer fashion subgroups.
“Gas and fast fashion are the two main things that are contributing to the downfall of the environment,” explains Amy Harper, community and content manager for the company.
“Bunz is an amazing place that contributes to a circular economy. You can find things to wear on the platform while knowing they’re not going to end up in the landfill. If I [buy something that I end up only wearing once], it’s going to find new home because of Bunz. Without social shopping or trading that might not be possible.”
Adolphus is fully aware of what the constant barrage of new posts can mean for her life (and wallet), so she chooses a balanced approach by mixing vintage pieces with new fast fashion. But the overall impact of social e-commerce on life is hard to gauge. As a micro-influencer, she doesn’t make the big bucks or have the big numbers that other well-known content creators do, which helps her feel better about her side hustle. She’s able to showcase the items she genuinely loves wearing—both high-end and fast fashion—without fear of upsetting a sponsor or designer, and because she consumes just as much as she creates, it often evens out at the end of the day. “I do this for fun, not as a job. I see me sharing my likes and dislikes just like talking to friends,” she says.
“It’s not good or bad. Shopping [on social media] is an extension of what people do all the time—look for something new.”