The buy button arrives: How social media shopping will change retail

"Buy button." The push from consumers and social media channels for this feature has finally peaked, and retailers are realizing the potential benefits of partnering with brands to make these online channels shoppable.

A few years ago, chats on Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) among friends and picture sharing of new outfits on Pinterest seemed like purely a social endeavor. But today many retailers are seeing the value in this free marketing channel and, in turn, the potential for increasing customer loyalty and sales.

In essence, buy buttons have the great potential to speed up the purchasing process by targeting shoppers where they are already socializing, communicating and sharing.

Pinterest announced that it will launch a buy button on its platform later in 2015. In partnership with big names such as Target (NYSE: TGT), Gap (NYSE: GPS), Banana Republic, Old Navy and Lululemon Athletica (NASDAQ: LULU), Pinterest is already offering promoted pins on the site. Both Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) and Facebook are in the early stages of testing shoppable buttons that make shopping quick, easy and enjoyable for shopper, while profitable for retailers.

Those retailers in the midst of testing social media channels are the early adopters—the innovators. And for those retailers that are not looking to harness this channel as a shoppable platform, well they better hurry because according to Gregg Zegras, senior VP of sales, global e-commerce at Pitney Bowes, the trend is not slowing down.

These channels have "fundamentally changed retail as we know it."

Why Now?

Social media buy buttons are just now popping up, but social media platforms have existed for awhile. So why add buy buttons now? According to Zegras, the reason for making social media channels shoppable now is two-fold. First, social media has reached a significant scale. From a consumer stand point, it has permeated into most demographics. What was once used to learn about others' behaviors and experiences, is now also a platform where consumers go to learn about products and services from friends.

Second, the technology is now so easily accessible on mobile that it almost seems crazy not to turn that channel into buying platform. "It is a natural extension," Zegras said. "Just due to the sheer volume of [social media], it can move the needle. It's a great retail opportunity, another channel in which to engage with the consumer."

Tomer Tagrin, co-founder and CEO of Yotpo, agrees that the time is now, referring to this as the "era of social commerce."

"Retailers' No. 1 priority should be getting in front of customers where they are reading and asking about products and services—on social media," Tagrin said. "This means offering everything from the content needed to make a purchase decision—customer reviews, pricing and product stats, quick and easy access to products—directly from your social feed. If retailers fail to keep up with social media innovation, ignoring consumer preferences, they'll miss out on opportunities to build customer trust, reach new customers and, ultimately, generate more revenue."

Early Adopters

If retailers are at all worried that allowing consumers to shop on social media will diminish their control of the product sales, then it's too late. As Zegras points out, the consumer is already the driver at the wheel. In fact, most retailers at this point have realized they need to be where the shopper is, whenever the shopper wants. Those retailers that have not yet accepted the leadership of the consumers are already behind.

"Consumers won't go back and this trend will continue to go forward," Zegras said.

No one really knows what the early stages of shoppable social media will bring for retailers. In fact, several early adopters may not be successful coming out of the gate. But the retailers who delve in will certainly learn a lot and be prepared for the future.

Because of the natural visual aspects of social media platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest, apparel, fashion and style brands seem like the most natural picks for early adopters of buy buttons—embracing the strength of consumers already sharing personal photos of new outfits, shoes and jewelry. But Zegras has no doubt that retailers of all industries will soon follow suit.

What's the hold up?

Well, according to Zegras, there is no reason to slow down, and retailers need to be looking forward, embracing social media shopping platforms. However, he can see why traditional retailers might be hesitant. Especially because with any online and digital retail comes a concerns from consumers. The biggest concerns are how to create a smooth checkout process in mobile shopping, including the security and privacy of online shopping. In other words, consumers need to be able to transact in a safe and secure environment, while still finding the process easy and quick. 

Essentially, social media is the ultimate space for customer service. So retailers that are not prepared or using this space correctly need to figure it out quickly.

Zegras talked about the natural progression of social media that turns behavior into commerce. "I was here, I got this product suggestion, I liked it and bought it and shared it," he described. And from there, a good customer experience has a place to multiply and spread, yielding that experience into more sales for the retailer.

Targin agrees that buy buttons are the latest innovation in harnessing consumers' mobile and social preferences to create the best possible customer loyalty.Will there be bad reviews? Well, of course, it's the nature of all retail channels. However, "The opportunity outweighs the risk," Zegras said. "If you're delivering the right customer service, the right way, you have best loyalty possible."

"We're looking at a not-so-distant future where the full purchase cycle can be done via your Twitter feed," Targin said. "Customers will follow a brand or retailer, see the product, read customer reviews, and purchase the product, all within a matter of seconds. While retailers will no doubt see challenges that come with any major disruptions in technology, this will provide a huge opportunity for building customer loyalty."