Retailers are only just about getting the hang of multichannel, but now they need to learn to step out of their comfort zones and sell into online social communities.

There’s a fundamental shift going on in retail which is taking the control of eCommerce out of retailers’ hands.

In recent years to transact with a retailer you would do so in store, online, direct mail or ringing up a call centre – all these channels are owned and controlled by the retailer. But retailers today are increasingly having to go to the consumers to sell their products – often on social media, marketplaces and even messaging platforms like WhatsApp.

Demandware’s VP of industry strategy and insights, Rob Garf calls this “the democratisation of retail”.

“It’s about breaking down the barriers and making everything accessible to the consumer when and where they want it and fully on their terms,” he explains.

From buy buttons on social platforms like Pinterest and Twitter to WeChat and WhatsApp being used to transact, these online spaces are not in the retailer’s control and therefore are difficult to manage and scale.

And social shopping is different from simply introducing a blog on a retail website. “It’s truly weaving together content and commerce so they become linked in a fundamental way,” explains Garf.

“And in the past retailers would often create content with deadends – if you blog about a cosmetic product you need a way to buy it right in that blog post, in one click versus five.”

Shoppable social network

Luxury fashion e-tailer Net-a-Porter recently launched The Net Set, described as a “shoppable social network” of like-minded stylish people who recommend clothes which can be purchased within the mobile application.

This example of social shopping, Garf says, is a “sign of a larger and broader fundamental shift in retail”.

Demandware recently launched Buyable Pins for Pinterest, enabling transactions to be embedded within the social media platform. Customers who want to buy something on Pinterest no longer have to be redirected to the retailer’s website and instead can make the purchase within the social space.

Popular messaging app in China, WeChat, is another example of a technology platform incorporating commerce within the social experience.

“It’s reliant on the users and consumers versus the brand and retailers to push the product,” says Garf, who notes that Chinese consumers are a bellwether for what is likely to take hold across the globe in the near future.

But getting the right balance between commerce and social is important, says Garf pointing to Facebook’s attempt a few years ago. “It didn’t strike that balance and it wasn’t genuine or authentic,” he says. “Consumers and members of that social platform rebelled  ̶  ‘I don’t want commerce shoved down my throat in a disingenuous way.’”

“It needs to be done in an authentic way and can’t come across too salesy,” he adds.

Chaos and complexity

But it is not an easy task for retailers, especially when the platform in question is not owned or controlled by the retailer.

“It actually creates a tonne of chaos and complexity because it is making a fundamental shift in the way retail operates today.”

Retailers who have already had a difficult job synchronising consumer shopping history, preferences and profile information across their own channels, now have the added complexity of syndicating that information across external platforms.

“They can do it – throw enough time and money at it and retailers will get it done,” he says. “But doing it in a scalable and manageable way, that will be the challenge.”

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