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Online Shopping Goes From Solo Experience to Social Interaction

'Fluid Social' Technology Allows Friends to Make Real-Time Purchase Suggestions Via Facebook, IM

By Published on . 3

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Online shopping is about to get social.

For years retailers have struggled to improve their online experience, but shopping online is still a solo endeavor, devoid of the interaction many consumers seek. Groups of women aren't often found huddled around computer monitors for a shopping trip, after all.

Vans' site lets users design sneakers with friends.
Vans' site lets users design sneakers with friends.
Without that interaction and purchase validation, shoppers, plagued by indecision, often abandon retailers' sites, said Andy Lloyd, CEO of Fluid, a San Francisco-based interactive agency. But now, with the proliferation of social media and the popularization of instant-messaging services, Mr. Lloyd believes customers and retailers are primed for what his agency has dubbed "Fluid Social." In the coming weeks, two technologies -- friend-based merchandising that involves Facebook and collaborative shopping -- are being rolled out to big-name retailers, including Vans, Lucky Brand Jeans and Warner Entertainment.

The collaborative-shopping technology, which is now live at Vans.com, allows consumers who are building custom shoes on the site to chat with friends in real time about the product design. The customer clicks on a link saying, "Invite friends to design with you," giving them the ability to access friends through AIM, e-mail or any other service a link can be sent through. Assuming the friend is also at a computer, she can join a chat on the Vans site to give a thumbs up or down on the design, as well as make her own suggestions.

"Facebook has chat integrated, so chatting within a page is now something people are comfortable with," Mr. Lloyd said. "The ability to elicit someone's opinion at the point of decision is an important thing."

Preliminary success
In the week that the collaborative shopping technology has been live, Katie Bongiovanni, Vans' director of e-commerce, reports sales and traffic are up. "It's preliminary, but the customers who have talked to us about it have been really happy with it," she said. "This is really how our consumer lives online right now. The collaborative part of it is resonating."

While the technology has clear advantages for retailers doing custom products, Mr. Lloyd said it makes sense for general retailers as well. For example, Jansport will add the technology later this month, allowing customers to seek opinions on potential purchases and allow their friends to make alternative suggestions.

"Considered purchases" like furniture or appliances are a logical match with the collaborative-shopping technology. "That's a huge piece of this, because not a lot of people live alone. ... "And they're not going to buy a couch without [a] roommate or spouse saying yes or no," he said.

Ms. Bongiovanni added that, generally, more customers are expecting custom experiences and custom products, making the addition of Fluid Social a logical next step for the brand.

The second piece of technology, friend-based merchandising, is now live at Jansport.com. When shoppers are viewing a product, they are given the option to "Share on Facebook" by adding the "My Favorite Jansport" application. Once the shopper has added the application, she can invite friends to comment on and rate Jansport products. As the application gains steam, customers will be able to view comments and favorites from their friends. The technology does not use Facebook Connect at this point, though Mr. Lloyd said it is likely to in the future.

David Polinchok, chairman of Brand Experience Lab, said this type of interactivity could mean fewer abandoned shopping carts. "You get more people to make decisions on the spot," he said. "Right now, either you can chat with the retailer or save something [to look at later]. I've got a wish list at Amazon.com, but I probably haven't been to it in a year."

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