Charming Shoppes E-Commerce Chief Speaks Of Retailer Social Ignorance

One of the brightest E-Commerce observers in the industry—Bill Bass—commented recently about the confusion between social media and brand awareness. Bass used to head E-Commerce at Lands' End and then Sears, and he now runs Fair Indigo and E-Commerce operations for the Charming Shoppes chain (1,989 stores in 48 states branded as Lane Bryant, Cacique, Fashion Bug, Catherines Plus Sizes and Figi's).

But his point is that retailers need to better understand what social media can do and what it truly represents, rather than what they want it to represent.

"No one has cracked the code on how social media impacts retail. I recently had an agency pitch an app as a way to build brand awareness. I pointed out that for someone to go to the trouble of downloading an app, they already need to be aware of the brand. So at best you could argue that it would help brand engagement, but not brand awareness. Lots of money is being spent in this area. Suspect most of it is being poured down a rat hole."

The term "rat hole" is wonderful, in that it almost signifies that the person speaking is both not a marketer (always a good trait in a mammal) and probably saying something worth considering. But the rat hole is simply that retailers don't have the ability today to understand the social-media influence on retail, and that lack of understanding is almost certainly causing a lot of wasted effort and money.

(Related Story: Has Charming Shoppes Really Improved The Accuracy Of Buying Clothes Online?)

Bass notes a disturbing shift away from E-mail toward Facebook and other social media. Eventually, when retailers master social-media issues, that shift will likely be a good change. But for now, he said, "It's worrisome, as we're shifting from a known sales driver to an unknown."

Bass also talked about the infatuation some retailers having with getting large "like" numbers for their business sites, including running contests and other promotions to incentivize people into "liking" a retailer's Facebook page.

That tactic is actually one of the most self-destructive efforts anywhere for three reasons. First, there's every reason to believe that consumers do not make their choices of where to buy things based on the number of "likes" on a retailer's Facebook page. (We could stop right there, but we promised you three reasons and, doggone it, we're going to deliver all three.)

Second, the only reason to want to increase a site's "likes" is if you believe that the number of "likes" has high credibility and persuasion with prospective customers. Third, if you believe Point Two, wouldn't a publicized contest to get people to "like" a retailer's page thoroughly obliterate whatever credibility it might have briefly enjoyed? Doesn't the existence of such promotions tell people that the number of "likes" on a site is just a marketing fiction, as opposed to an organic list of people—with no incentives at all—who chose to "like" a site?