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Why Instagram Still Isn’t a Shopping Destination

Two years after the debut of Instagram Checkout, many brands say their customers are unlikely to make purchases directly through the app.
The Instagram Checkout process for Gray Matters.
The Instagram Checkout process for Gray Matters.

When Instagram approached Brooklyn-based shoe brand Gray Matters last year about selling shoes directly through the app, founder and designer Silvia Avanzi figured it would be a great new way to drive sales of her structured mules and block-heel pumps.

The social media giant launched Instagram Checkout in 2019, promising a seamless experience that would allow consumers to shop for products without leaving its app. Avanzi figured if potential customers didn’t need to click through to her website to make a purchase, they’d be more likely to buy while browsing, especially as anyone making a repeat purchase on Instagram would already have their payment and shipping details stored on file. She made the switch and waited for the sales to roll in.

But they didn’t. Between November and May, only one Gray Matters transaction took place via Instagram Checkout.

“It seemed really exciting,” Avanzi said. “It’s Instagram, so you trust them … but shopping on social media isn’t so easy or straightforward.”

Gray Matters isn’t the only company with reservations about Instagram Checkout. Though its launch two years ago was billed as a watershed moment in Instagram’s push to become an e-commerce powerhouse, conversations with six brands suggest that goal may be a ways off. Like Avanzi, most of them said the function hasn’t resulted in a meaningful increase in sales. And there are trade-offs, including Instagram’s five percent commission, though it’s been waived through July.

Instagram introduced checkout in the spring of 2019 as part of a larger effort to build on its status as the go-to social media app for discovering fashion. Facebook, which owns Instagram, saw an opportunity to gain a slice of the still-fragmented online apparel market, especially as traditional multi-brand retailers like Barneys and Opening Ceremony have faltered.

At its launch, only a small group of influencers and brands had access to Checkout. Since last summer, the social media company has expanded the function to any e-commerce businesses powered by Shopify and BigCommerce, as well as those already using Facebook Business Manager.

“There’s a clear gap we’re filling in the market,” said Layla Amjadi, Instagram’s director of product management, shopping. “People have lots of [online] options when they know exactly what they want, but they don’t have a lot of options for where to go shopping when shopping is an interest and an activity itself.”

Instagram will continue to build out features to accommodate this “window shopping” experience, according to the company. The hiccups surrounding Checkout may be due to brands not knowing exactly how to navigate the function.

“We know there’s more we can do to help businesses make the most of our commerce tools,” Facebook vice president of commerce Shiva Rajaraman said in a statement. “We’re investing in education and support to help businesses build meaningful shopping experiences from discovery to consideration to purchase.”

Convenience at a Cost

Brands said the biggest pain point is that Checkout may promise a more seamless shopping experience, but it doesn’t deliver a better one.

While it allows consumers to buy anything that happens to catch their fancy in just two clicks, shoppers don’t get the benefit of all the additional product information they would find on a brands’ website. In many cases, if they wanted sizing information, details about materials or additional photos, they’d have to close out of the app and manually visit the brand’s homepage on their browser. Some checkout pages do include product information, but it may be obscured underneath the “Add to Cart” button and requires extra exploration.

“I wish there was product information on there and it’s a shame [Instagram] doesn’t have it,” said Kelynn Smith, creative and digital director at Lacausa, a clothing brand. “We’re getting ... Checkout [sales] here and there but I wouldn’t say it’s been any kind of boost for us.”

In some cases, Checkout has created a more convoluted customer journey, when would-be shoppers could click through to a brand’s website from the app. If anything, Instagram Checkout “might have taken the sales that we would’ve had on our website,” said Smith.

Matthew Herman, co-founder of the candle brand Boy Smells, said Instagram Checkout doesn’t allow brands to fully represent the products they’re offering.

“With Instagram shopping, you’re not seeing the full picture of the brand,” he said, pointing to the scent notes for each Boy Smells candle product as an example. “[Customers] want the full brand experience, they don’t want this segmented, fractured moment unless it’s an Amazon shopping situation and the purchase is out of necessity.

Herman added that the brand sees better sales conversions on Instagram through advertising on Stories, which allows users to swipe up to visit the website directly.

Instagram told BoF that Checkout fully supports whatever information brands would like to include on their product pages on the app.

“There’s nothing preventing a seller from having a product page on Instagram that’s identical to their websites,” said Amjadi, whether that includes more images, a better description, ingredients or a size chart. “It just means the seller has to fill out those fields.”

Another source of frustration for Avanzi is the app has not made it easy for Gray Matters to return to the previous iteration of Instagram shopping, where users can click on “View on Website” rather than being prompted to buy it on the app. When Avanzi contacted Facebook in March, a customer service agent told her that it was not possible to “opt-out” of her current mode of managing product pages.

According to Instagram, however, the transition back should be an easy task. “It may be an awareness issue,” Amjadi said.

But because of this murkiness, some brands have resisted updating to Checkout. Arielle Assouline-Lichten, founder of homeware brand Slash Objects, said she was planning on it until she heard from other brands, including Gray Matters, that it hasn’t been user-friendly.

Until Instagram incorporates more product context into the checkout process, Assouline-Lichten said she won’t upgrade to the function. “Consumers are highly intelligent and very attuned to every nuance in the checkout process so it really needs to feel as robust as the [e-commerce] experience,” she added.

A Shopping Machine

To be sure, certain labels and products do perform better on Checkout, according to some consumers and influencer-friendly brands. Nikki Ruiz, the head of marketing and operations for tote bag brand Junes, said she uses Checkout about once every two or three months, typically for products from individual brands with a limited assortment of products. The last piece she bought was a phone case from Wildflower Cases.

For instance, Ruiz said she tends to use Instagram Checkout for smaller brands known for one or two hero products, whereas for multi-brand retailers like Los Angeles-based boutique Lisa Says Gah, she prefers to visit the website separately.

Trendy items that have a lot of exposure already on Instagram are also popular through Checkout, according to Chelsea Hansford, chief executive and creative director of clothing brand Simon Miller. “If it’s a trend item, like a bubble clog or leggings or one of our pieces that people already know and love, then [Instagram Checkout is] a really easy way to buy it,” she said. Simon Miller grew 510 percent since April 2019, largely thanks to Instagram, Hansford added. Orseund Iris, another social media-savvy brand known for its corset-inspired knit tops, said its Instagram Checkout sales have risen consistently since the brand adopted the tool.

Another way to encourage the use of Checkout is to offer exclusive product “Drops” using the app, according to Amjadi, as well as tutorial posts teaching followers how to use the Checkout function.

Brands seeing stagnant Checkout sales today hope that Instagram will soon improve its user experience. Most have no doubt that Instagram will continue to inch closer to its ambition to become a shopping destination.

“Instagram is a shopping machine,” said Smith of Lacausa. “I’m sure they’ll build out the capabilities of it.”

Related Articles:

Instagram’s E-Commerce Plans Are Bigger Than You Think

Facebook Rolls Out Tools to Help Creators Monetise Videos and Livestreams

Selling Fashion on Instagram: Expectation vs. Reality

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