Facebook introduces Facebook Shops, the tech giant's vision of social-driven retail storefronts.

Mark Zuckerberg took the wraps off Facebook’s latest move to court shoppers on Tuesday. In a livestream announcement, the chief executive unveiled Facebook Shops, a social media-driven storefront from the parent company of Instagram.

The latter matters, of course, because Shops represents an evolution of Instagram’s years-long work developing e-commerce features, including tagging methodologies, product catalogue integration, shopping bags, checkout features and, most recently, tests for selling via live video.

Those features now expand to Facebook. And, in a circular sort of logic, Facebook Shops will beget Instagram Shops, which is due to arrive this summer.

Instagram Shops (above) resemble Facebook Shops (featured), apart from some design details unique to each platform. Pictured: Business profile, Instagram Shop, collections and product page.  Courtesy image

It’s not clear if Facebook meant to schedule the debut for this time, or if it sped up plans because of the coronavirus crisis. Some tech companies have been accelerating their plans in a race to bring updates and retail tools to the market to help beleaguered merchants move into a soaring e-commerce environment.

Either way, the company framed the offering as a solution to help stores speed their way into digital retail.

Right now many small businesses are struggling, and with stores closing, more are looking to bring their business online. Our goal is to make shopping seamless and empower anyone from a small business owner to a global brand to use our apps to connect with customers,” Facebook wrote on its blog. “That’s why we’re launching Facebook Shops and investing in features across our apps that inspire people to shop and make buying and selling online easier.”

The action hinges on a new dashboard, or Commerce Manager, where business account holders can open their shop for free. Here, they can choose the products to feature or set in a collection, pick accent colors and select a cover image. Each collection carries a name, description, cover media and six to 30 products, and merchants can designate themes that may resonate with consumers. They can preview what shoppers will see, then choose to push the storefront to Facebook or Instagram.

The Commerce Manager dashboard.  Courtesy image

Facebook offered a preview of how the set-up works in a video featuring letterpress paper retailer Ink Meets Paper.

Existing stores in Instagram business profiles or Facebook business pages will automatically convert to a shop. Other interested parties can work with partners to get up and running, such as Shopify, BigCommerce, WooCommerce, Channel Advisor, CedCommerce, Cafe24, Tienda Nube and Feedonomics.

Children’s retailer SpearmintLove waxed enthusiastic about the social store. “Over the years we’ve grown our businesses on top of our highly engaged global community of moms across Facebook and Instagram. Our success is a result of our early investment in commerce across both apps,” Shari Lott, SpearmintLove’s founder and chief executive officer, said in a statement. “That’s why we’re excited for Facebook Shops and the ways it will make shopping even more inspiring, so customers can see items they love and buy them right away.”

But critics may look past the supportive messaging and zero in on the connection between Facebook shopping and its ad business, with users’ activity influencing the products they see in Shops, and their product browsing and buying behavior informing the ads they see. As for privacy, it’s worth noting that the company immediately posted its policy for Shops, specifying that it won’t share personally identifiable information to a user’s networks or to the retailer, unless it’s to enable a specific transaction through, say, Facebook Pay or Instagram Checkout, its payments systems in the U.S.

When it comes to advertising, that part of the business often drives Facebook initiatives, and this may be no different. After all, the company’s retail interests have been somewhat lateral — with efforts like the peer-to-peer Marketplace allowing users to sell goods, or through Messenger purchasing and customer service chatbots — while Instagram’s e-commerce moves have been more direct and in constant development. Now the parent company can benefit from Instagram’s work, while bringing the platforms a little closer together.

That doesn’t mean Facebook’s Marketplace will end. Representatives told WWD that there are no plans to scrap it, which means Facebook users have a few different shopping vectors within the network, in addition to its family of apps. The company’s messaging features and apps — WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram Direct — will continue to act as customer service lines, with plans to allow those users to view Shops and buy via messaging in the future. As for Instagram, Facebook revealed that a new Shop tab will head to the app’s navigation bar later this year, so users can get to Instagram Shop in just one tap.

In the immediate future, Facebook Shops are first up. The roll-out begins Tuesday, with Instagram Shops to follow in the coming weeks.

“I know that these tools aren’t going to work for everyone,” Zuckerberg said during the livestream. “[But] we hope it helps rebuild some of the infrastructure that businesses need — not just during this moment, but even when this period and lockdowns end.”

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