NEW YORK, United States — Andrea Wazen didn’t design her line of heels with Instagram specifically in mind, but she might as well have.
The Lebanese designer’s strappy tulle pumps and candy coloured mules feature the sort of bold flourishes that help a shoe rack up the likes in a sea of sole sameness. Wazen credits Instagram for turning the US into her biggest market, and the Facebook-owned platform is likely why her heels have found their way onto the feet of Cardi B, Kylie Jenner and other celebrities.
“Instagram is my partner in terms of sales, in terms of PR, in terms of networking,” Wazen said. “100 percent of my clients, whether they were walk-in clients at the store, whether they're online clients, or whether they're even wholesale clients, they came from Instagram purely.”
What they aren’t doing is buying her shoes directly off of Instagram itself, at least not in large numbers. Instagram introduced Checkout in spring 2019, allowing users to make purchases without leaving the network for the first time. Wazen integrated the platform’s shopping tools as soon as they became available but said customers use it mainly to check prices before heading over to her own e-commerce site.
So-called social commerce has gone viral in the 18-plus months since Instagram Checkout debuted. TikTok tested in-app shopping during fashion month with promotions tied to Puma and Alice + Olivia. YouTube is experimenting with its own shopping tools, including a feature that allows viewers to learn more about products they see in videos. But so far, the Facebook-owned platform has a big head start, with e-commerce now widely available on Stories, Reels, IGTV and other features.
For social media platforms, capturing even a sliver of sales from companies that advertise on their platform is a multi-billion-dollar proposition. Their pitch is simple: shopping directly from feeds theoretically reduces the number of clicks required to convert an ad impression into a sale.
Brands and consumers aren’t fully sold on the idea, however. Though hundreds of labels have signed up for Instagram Shop and other services, many are reluctant to cede control over the transaction – and the data it generates – to a third party. Brands that have spent years cultivating social media communities may also want to keep overt commerce at arm’s length.
“We view social platforms, first and foremost, as channels for storytelling and connection with our community,” said Ali Weiss, senior vice president of marketing at Glossier. The brand uses some Instagram shopping features, including the ability to see an item’s price, “when we believe they enhance the discovery experience for our customers, always driving back to Glossier.com,” said Weiss.
Still, shopping on social media has gained a foothold and appears poised to grow.
Instagram Leads the Pack
Instagram launched shopping tags for brands in 2016, but only rolled out its Checkout feature — which either facilitates the purchase of goods through Facebook Pay directly on the platform or redirects a user to a brand’s website to continue the sale — in March 2019 to a few dozen retailers and brands.
In August of that year, Instagram made Checkout more widely available, and additional features have followed at a regular cadence. Today, fashion brands including Chloé, Michael Kors, Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs and LemLem use Instagram Shop to either sell directly on the platform or redirect consumers to their own websites.
Instagram declined to give sales figures for transactions conducted on its platform. The vast majority of businesses using Instagram’s shopping tools still redirect consumers to their own websites, according to a spokesperson.
Competitors are still in the early stages of rolling out their shopping tools.
The ability to micro-market, take this more surgical, precise approach by channel is super valuable.
TikTok reached out to Puma to collaborate on its virtual runway show and test the platform’s “Storefront” commerce feature, said Ivan Dashkov, head of social media and marketing communications at the brand. Dashkov added that while it was important to get in early on the platform’s shopping tools, Puma’s primary focus remains on growing its community there.
Pinterest redirects shoppers to retailers’ websites. The platform also offers shoppable Product Pins, which identify in-stock products and launched a programme where the platform highlights retailers that provide a quality customer experience.
Direct Access to Gen Z
Social commerce may have special appeal for luxury brands, which can target younger consumers with shoppable posts for entry-level products like accessories or cosmetics. Older, wealthier customers would be none the wiser, reducing the risk of diluting a label’s image.
Marc Jacobs, for example, sells products like its popular $295 Snapshot bag and $32 Le Marc lipstick on Instagram. The brand declined to comment. Some pricier items are available too: a user could purchase a $4,795 black-and-white satin corset dress from Balmain’s feed.
“The ability to micro-market, take this more surgical, precise approach by channel is super valuable,” said Tracey Lomrantz Lester, a marketing and e-commerce consultant. “[Social media] allows the brand to use a slightly more youthful voice ... that they may not splash on the front of their homepage.”
Brands will have to let go of the idea that they can control every touchpoint, however. Lomrantz Lester noted that luxury labels must accept that they could potentially appear in the same feed as less-aspirational rivals.
Burberry uses Instagram to sell products from its “B Series,” which are available for 24 hours through the brand’s social media accounts. The project began in September 2018 (initially customers had to swipe up to be redirected to Burberry’s website).
The brand said for B Series, “the ephemeral nature of Instagram stories perfectly aligned with our proposition: limited product, limited time, limited distribution.”
B Series is also sold through WeChat, Kakao and LINE, three social networks that are most popular in Asia, where social commerce is better-established.
Some experts see the popularity of e-commerce on WeChat in China as a sign of things to come in the US and Europe. Entertainment-based digital retail — like shopping during live streaming and gaming broadcasts, both of which can happen on social media — is one format that has worked, said Susanna Nicoletti, a digital luxury consultant who has worked with brands like Tod’s on their high-level marketing strategy.
Not a Perfect Solution
There’s a reason many brands still direct customers from Instagram to their own websites to complete a sale: whoever conducts a transaction also gains access to valuable data.
Brands use this information, such as how much time a shopper spends browsing certain products or various parts of a website, to fine-tune their offerings, target new customers and convince shoppers to spend more.
When a sale takes place on a social media platform or a marketplace like Amazon, brands might only receive a partial view of their customers’ behaviour.
“As a brand, we need to know who our consumers are, we need to know where they live, or what they're buying or what they're looking at — as much information as we can get — and I think through Instagram at this point I'm not sure how much we get of that information,” said Wazen, the Lebanese footwear designer.
“In terms of sales, [social commerce] would help a lot, because you get a very fast sale,” she added. “But then again, how much are we benefiting from the Instagram store? It's still a question.”