Coverage: The convergence of social media and online retail is about relationships

When it comes to the convergence of retail and social media the future, for several startups, is the relationship between the customer and the merchant that has been largely overshadowed in online retail.

"I think after 15 years of Google and Amazon dominating search, it's time for a new era in shopping, and that new era is about relationships" John Caplan, the CEO and founder of OpenSky, a social shopping network, said during a panel on digital influence.

In-store relationships are a difficult thing to replicate online, or at least they have been. The advent of social media has brought with it a flood of customer interaction, and combining that with online shopping has allowed for the creation of what Deena Varshavskaya, founder and CEO of Wanelo, a user- and merchant-generated marketplace where everything customers see is for sale, considers an inevitable void that will need to be filled.

"Human beings do not exist in a vacuum," she said. "Friends and family are how we make sense of the world."

Twitter fills that vacuum for news, LinkedIn for jobs, but, as Varshavskaya sees it, no one has taken the lead when it comes to shopping. Nearly three quarters of people are influenced by social media at some point during their buying decisions, and yet popular channels like Pinterest ultimately prove frustrating because would-be shoppers can scout out what they like but can't buy the things they see.

Both OpenSky and Wanelo harness the power of customer interaction by letting them shape their buying experience and converse much more intimately with the people selling to them.

Similarly, Brian Spaly, CEO of Trunk Club, caters specifically to men who love stylish clothing but hate shopping. Trunk Club works with its customers to develop a report between them and their personal stylist, who periodically sends boxes full of new clothes based on their preferences. The overwhelmingly positive reactions to the stylist/customer relationship have led Spaly to the realization that these men actually do enjoy the shopping process, but only when it's on their terms.

"Sometimes we actually want to have an interaction when we buy stuff," he explained. "That interaction is something we believe customers want, but they want it their way and they only want it some of the time."

For Caplan, the movement toward more personal merchant relationships is a step forward, but it also harkens back to a part of shopping culture that has its roots in the past.

"This merchant interaction, both pre- and post-sales, is neighborhood shopping," he said. "It's taking care to interact directly with the customer."

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