I have been thinking a lot about shopping lately.  Granted it’s time for a new spring wardrobe, but more importantly, I have been preparing to talk to the Indian Retailer’s Association (RAI) in Mumbai next month on the impact of social business on retailers.  Here is the US, as well as with much of the world, we are slowly limping our way out of the Great Recession. Customers are starting to trickle back into stores – and faster into online stores than physical ones – the pressure is on for retailers to keep costs down and over-perform throughout their operations in order to remain competitive.  All this while they offer the most desirable products to consumers.
That’s a lot of pressure on retailers to innovate and many are turning to social media in order to do things differently. In fact, many retailers are flocking to social media just because their competitors are there, without a solid footing on what they hope to gain from their efforts.

And, the jury is still out on whether social media marketing can influence the behavior of shoppers.  A recent study by Forrester and GSI Commerce states that social media marketing rarely leads directly to online purchases; less than 2% of orders among the retailers surveyed were the result of shoppers coming from a social network, according to  The Purchase Path of Online Buyers report 2010, Forrester Research and GSI Commerce. 

On the other hand, 72% of retailers plan to spend more on marketing via social networks this year than in 2010, according to survey data from Forrester Research Inc. and Shop.org. When asked about their attitudes on the value of marketing through social networks, the largest group of respondents, or 82%, say they are pursuing social marketing strategies because “this is a great time to experiment and learn more about what they can do.” The results come from the annual State of Retailing Online survey conducted by Forrester Research Inc. for Shop.org in 2011.
It’s no surprise that social media marketing is unlikely to be the sole or even primary source of buyer stampedes, but when a social business strategy and focused execution are woven into an organization’s operations, improved financial, marketing and customer satisfaction performance can result. Retailers are just beginning their journey to social business maturity, but typically, they are fast learners and likely to move quickly from the age of experimentation into the world of full-fledged collaborative enterprises.

Musing about the current and future state of retailers, I can’t help wondering what this “new normal” business practice will mean at the consumer–facing front lines? Driving all this willingness to experiment is the huge bump in online sales that occurred in 2010.  Total web sales for the top 500 chain retailers grew to $55.32 billion in 2010, an increase of 11.3% from sales of $49.68 billion in 2009.  The opportunity for consumers to research purchases and share shopping experiences online suggests this trend will continue to grow. No more buying shoes that run narrow or Wii games that are useless — I have the wisdom of crowds to influence my decisions.  Hurray!

Many retailers have begun experimenting with social media marketing as a way to attract customers.  So I went surfing online – ahem, for academic purposes only — to all the shopping sites I could find to see what they are doing with social.

Much of what I found was predictable: poorly-conceived Facebook fan pages, half-baked twitter accounts with a coupon or three topics tweeted every so often to a random assortment of followers, and a “thumbs up” icon to rate products online. Ho hum.  These efforts aren’t likely to catapult a retailer ahead of their competition or bring the world out of the economic doldrums anytime soon.

Along the way, however, I also found a number of examples of true social business activity by retailers that made my social business-loving heart skip a beat. Really, there is no more beautiful or satisfying form of retail therapy than a well-executed social strategy which also involves a luxury brand.

Here’s what I found…

  • Retailers are unleashing powerful influence campaigns aimed at grass-roots audiences. Can you say mommy bloggers?
  • Using social strategies to extend customer loyalty efforts online. I heart my “All You Can Jet” plan with JetBlue
  • Building product awareness & driving consumer desires. Have you seen the Gucci Facebook page? How about Burberry’s Art of the Trench site?
  • Using social techniques to source new product ideas.  There’s Starbucks Ideasite, where 1000 ideas were generated by customers in 8 months, and over 100 were implemented. How about the new Overstock.com RecLab Prize, where the researcher or team who comes up with a 10% more effective method for recommending products to online shoppers at Overstock.com will win $1 million? Or Quirky, an entire online retail business built around customer product suggestions.
  • Social shopping services which reinforce buyer decisions. That’s Groupon, folks.
  • Extending in-depth customer service online by using social tools to speed problem resolution and reduce call center costs. Thanks, Dell and Orbitz, for answering my tweets!