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Social networking evolves into venue to target shoppers


NEW YORK —What do Target, Sears and Dillard’s have in common? The social networking giant, Facebook.

With a click of a button, Facebook users can become a ‘fan’ of Target and interact with the site by reviewing promotional videos for Converse One Star and by scanning through new collections, like Jovovich-Hawk for GO International. Another click and they are on filling up the shopping cart.

Those in the market for a prom dress can share selections with friends by hitting the Facebook icon on the Prom Premiere page. Within seconds, an image of the prom dress appears on their profiles, beckoning an opinion and advertising the feature at the same time.

Dillard’s plans to ‘poke’ Facebook (a form of greeting on the site) via sponsored applications. Between May and June, users will be able to browse a ‘closet’ filled with Dillard’s merchandise, then ask friends to rate their selections by using the “What Are You Wearing?” application.

According to a comScore study, about 25% of nearly 80 billion visitors who venture onto apparel and accessories sites are heavy social networkers. “Apparel retailers—especially those geared towards younger consumers—can benefit by considering the use of social networking sites as a marketing channel,” said comScore chairman Gian Fulgoni in a statement. “Savvy retailers understand that e-commerce represents only one component of the incremental sales that result from online advertising efforts, and that the Internet is a powerful medium for brand-building and driving in-store sales.”

In 2007, U.S. online retail reached $175 billion, $22.7 billion of which is attributed to apparel, accessories and footwear, reported Forrester Research study “U.S. eCommerce Forecast: 2008 to 2012.” The same study estimates that online sales will reach $335 billion in 2012, with the apparel, accessories and footwear sector doubling to $41.8 billion.

Tapping into the online market benefits retailers twofold—it boosts sales and drives store traffic. Wal-Mart’s extensive site-to-store program is a good example. The online channel offers a much larger assortment along with the option to save on shipping charges by having the sales go directly to the store for pickup.

“The advantage of having people go to a store [is that there are then] more impulse purchases,” said Sucharita Mulpuru, principal analyst for retail at Forrester Research. “The average units from transaction online [are] usually two. At the store, you’re going to walk down the aisle and see 50 other things.”

Forrester Research also mentioned that a large portion of online shoppers check the higher-income bracket than an average customer and, in turn, are not as sensitive to the economic turmoil. “Online is going to grow in spite of [an] economic downturn,” added Mulpuru, “even though the rest of the retail pie is expecting flatten comp-store sales.”

Additionally, online retail is becoming increasingly seasonal, hence Sears’ prom dress/Facebook collaboration. The temporary deal goes through May, but that does not mean an end to a social networking relationship. Although Sears hasn’t revealed future endeavors, customers can expect more social interaction in the future.

In the meantime, Kmart has a social venture of its own, the Kmart Style Showoff. The interactive page allows customers to upload images showcasing their own style. Ultimately, one of the participants will be chosen by a judge panel, which includes Jaclyn Smith, to be one of the participants in an ad campaign. “The purpose of the site in supporting the contest is twofold,” said Bill Stewart, chief marketing officer for Kmart. “We certainly want to expose people to all of the great fashions at Kmart and we also want our customers to begin a dialogue around the idea that great style doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.”

Since the launch of the site on March 9, received over 1,600 uploads, bringing the page views to a six-digit figure and increased visiting time on the site. “Our customers are investing in us because we’ve invested in them through channels that make their shopping experience more compelling,” added Stewart.

To entice the younger customer, also launched private label Piper & Blue that interacts with users by incorporating a ‘Boutique Blog’ filled with style tips from designers in the New York office.

The lesson learned is that open communication between an online retailer and consumer, as well as consumer-to-consumer, is key to building a dynamic image. Social networking is not going away any time soon. Disregarding the customers who check their Facebook page five times a day can be detrimental, especially if the competition is adding ‘fans’ by the dozen.

The next big thing? Text shopping. Amazon is already ahead of the game with the recently launched TextBuyIt, which allows users to comparison shop with their phone and make purchases on the spot.

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