CHICAGO — Online commerce has entered a playful stage, as merchants toy with mobile, social and location-based services to engage shoppers.

Conceding they don’t know how emerging channels will evolve, retailers are more willing to try whimsical ways to build a presence in the social space, confident sales will follow even if the how and why are still a mystery.

This story first appeared in the June 16, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

It’s all about making things easier for the customer — or as Imran Jooma, president of e-commerce at Sears Holdings Corp., told WWD at last week’s Internet Retailer Conference here: instant gratification. “Mobile is the epicenter of multichannel and social networking,” Jooma said during a keynote speech. “Build trust. Build excitement and, when needed, translate that into commerce.” ComScore Inc. chairman Gian Fulgoni said consumers active in social networking spend 1.5 times more than consumers who remain on the sidelines.

Sears’ mobile application that enables consumers to photograph a coveted item for personal shoppers to seek out on their behalf resulted in at least one pizza order — something not found in Sears stores, its Web sites or even among the 12 million items sold through its Marketplace of merchandise from other retailers.

Other recent innovations in the social space include an online Break-Up Service from outdoor gear retailer Moosejaw, which took on the nasty task of ending romantic relationships. Moosejaw employees phoned 200 unsuspecting souls at the behest of customers, acting as proxy to inform them “it’s over.” The retailer also arranged a few love connections among the just jilted.

Jimmy Choo sent shoppers scurrying through the streets of London on its “Catch a Choo” scavenger hunt for a $600 trainer shoe using FourSquare, a location-based mobile social network and game. The result was 4,000 participants, a 40 percent increase in positive comments posted online and a 33 percent rise in sneaker sales, according to David Griner, social media strategist at media agency Luckie & Co.

At the conference, Sears’ Jooma unveiled the launch of a new mobile application, ManageMyLife, designed to help consumers plan home projects, seek advice from an online community and use their phones to place grocery and merchandise orders for pickup or home delivery.

Sears’ 2009 online sales hit $2.8 billion, according to Internet Retailer estimates, but Jooma declined to comment on the accuracy of that figure. U.S. online retail sales were $38.7 billion in the first quarter of 2010, up 14 percent from the same period in 2009, reports the U.S. Department of Commerce.

One tactic gaining traction among retailers is attaching the Facebook thumbs-up “like” button to items offered online. Levi’s took the lead here, and others like Steve Madden Ltd. and 1-800-Flowers.com recently added the social plug-in, so when consumers indicate they “like” a product, that endorsement is published as a News Feed item on their Facebook pages and facilitates word-of-mouth recommendations.

“The viral effect of getting people to talk about the brand with little or incremental cost is going to have impact,” said Andrew Koven, president of customer experience and e-commerce at Steve Madden. He said the company just began “predictive remarketing,” which serves up display advertising based on an individual’s online browsing behavior for the greatest degree of relevancy. For example, a shopper who visits the Madden site, then moves on to USA Today to check the stock market would be served a Steve Madden banner ad on the USA Today stock page.

A more “socially minded” Steve Madden site, and a site optimized for viewing on an iPad, are set to launch in 45 to 60 days, Koven added.

Estée Lauder tailors its social media and digital strategy according to location.

“Leverage scale where it matters most and understand what needs to be local,” said Dennis McEniry, president of online at the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., which launches 100 Web sites each year.

For instance, technology and infrastructure are managed globally, but each of Estée Lauder’s 29 brands puts forth a different customer experience online and category mix varies across markets.

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