Pinterest demonstrates promise and peril of 'buy buttons'

Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) kicked things off last year, and now buy buttons are proving to be one of the developing retail trends of 2015. The social networks continue to work on their initiatives while Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and Pinterest both approach launches of their own. But if these digital players think slapping a button on some ads and posts is all there is to it, they may have another thing coming.

This recent boom comes as retailers are trying to improve their mobile shopping experiences. Phones are key to digital shopping, but many customers still prefer desktop to mobile because it's easier to browse and purchase, according to a recent comScore study. When they are shopping on mobile, 41 percent of the people comScore surveyed said they preferred a full site to a mobile site (which 34 percent of customers preferred) or a mobile app (which 25 percent preferred).

Streamlining the process by including an easy-to-use buy button in an ad makes sense, then, and also provides retailers an opportunity to compete with the Amazons of the world when it comes to m-commerce visibility.

Pinterest demonstrates that opportunity, perhaps better than any other digital platform, as a Millward Brown study last month showed 96 percent of users research and gather information on the network, 93 percent use it to plan for purchases and 87 percent have bought something because of Pinterest.

But for all that influence, even Pinterest is struggling to figure out just how a buy button should be effectively implemented. The network is home to millions of product images and they can't all be buyable. Setting up those relationships with retailers can be challenging and, even then, items go out of stock—so what's to compel shoppers to turn to the service regularly if only a fraction of products will be available.

"The problem with Pinterest now is that so much actually isn't buyable and never will be directly from where the image originated, and in fashion, things constantly go out of stock," Forrester Research Analyst Sucharita Mulpuru told Re/code. "People love things that are years old. So the solution is to find the next best match. But that's not what Pinterest is doing with this buy button."

Pinterest aims to get the feature in front of potential buyers in other ways initially, showing buy buttons prominently among search results, home screens and recommendations as the network deems it appropriate. And, of course, its Promoted Pins, launched just this year, will also offer businesses the opportunity to get their products in front of potential buyers.

But there's still a long way to go for buy buttons to really become mainstream, and progress is slow.

Twitter was one of the first companies to begin work on the button. While the social network did get the feature out the door, it has bigger fish to fry with shareholders clamoring for assurance that Twitter can keep its user base. Facebook, on the other hand, is still in the testing phase and focusing more on small businesses through Shopify rather than relationships with major brands.

 For more:
-See this Re/code story
-See this comScore press release
-See this Pinterest for Business blog post

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