WhatsApp announces a new update bringing carts to the messaging app.

WhatsApp revealed a new update on Tuesday that brings carts to the Facebook messaging app.

“Carts are great when messaging businesses that typically sell multiple items at once, like a local restaurant or clothing store,” the company wrote in a blog post revealing the feature. “With carts, people can browse a catalogue, select multiple products and send the order as one message to the business.”

In other words, people can send their carts to brands and retailers as a way to let them know what they want to buy; however, they will still need to discuss payment arrangements, delivery or pick-up or other details.

All that may change when the app eventually launches checkouts, which is on the road map for some point in the future. But for now, consider it more of an organizational tool than a direct transaction feature.

But the launch of shopping carts may matter more in what it signifies for WhatsApp and its parent company than what its functionality might imply.

The moment any online commerce platform releases a shopping cart feature seems momentous — like a rite of passage signifying that an interesting experiment has graduated to a more serious shopping tool, or at least intends to do so.

This context is important, particularly since the way shopping works on WhatsApp is fundamentally different than on social channels.

WhatsApp is not a discovery tool, the way Instagram and Facebook are. Users don’t browse an in-app feed, product ads or store. To see a brand’s product offerings, they must already be in a chat with the business and tap a button in the chat window, which appears if the retailer has a catalogue set up. In some regions, Facebook and Instagram shoppers can just tap a button to send a WhatsApp message to the business. 

This framework between platforms makes sense, in that WhatsApp is rooted in the conversational commerce model of chat apps, as opposed to the social commerce of platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat and others. That dividing line between conversational and social commerce is distinct and obvious in the U.S. But abroad, apps like China’s wildly popular WeChat successfully blur the line, driving revenue for parent Tencent. The messaging, social and e-commerce platform is often described as a Swiss Army knife of mobile apps or a “super app.”

There’s no comparable experience from a singular American tech platform. But Facebook seems intent on cobbling one together across its app portfolio.

Where Facebook and Instagram act as storefronts for browsing and discovery, “WhatsApp is fast becoming a store counter to discuss products and coordinate sales,” wrote the company, which often bills itself as a faster and more convenient alternative to dialing 1-800 numbers.

This is the concept behind allowing Facebook and Instagram ads to trigger a WhatsApp chat: Consumers can discover a brand and then quickly start a conversation with the business.

The comparison also offers another explanation of why the platform decided on shopping carts. In the real world, customer service counters can take a shopping basket and let patrons pay for their goods on the spot, instead of kicking customers out to another checkout line. Now, with carts — and soon with transactions — WhatsApp will be able to do the same.

It all lines up with Facebook’s overarching priority on shopping, and messaging is clearly a fundamental part of it.

Already the industry has gotten the memo about the importance of customer service and messaging. A LivePerson survey from September revealed that 68 percent of consumers would trust a retailer more if associates were readily available over a messaging platform to give advice, answer questions and help with purchases.

The same month, Messenger features expanded into the Instagram experience. In October, Facebook followed that up by unveiling major plans to bring more commerce features to WhatsApp.

Now Facebook intends to acquire Kustomer, a customer relationship management platform that specializes in wrangling business chats across multiple channels.

The company seemingly acknowledges that the stakes could be high. As it is, more than 175 million people message a WhatsApp business account each day and more than 40 million users around the world view a business catalogue per month in the platform.

WhatsApp expects those figures to go up further, especially as the pandemic rages on — which explains why it keeps pushing for ways to make shopping, and all the conversations around it, as convenient as possible.

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