The Economist’s journal Intelligent Life has published an interesting article (archived below) on social commerce (focusing on user ratings and reviews), by Booker Prize shortlist author Linda Grant.

Our top takeouts/thoughts:

  • User ratings and reviews turn a dry catalogue shopping experience into an interactive and engaging Pop Idol (X-Factor in UK) experience – allowing people to “talk back to the shop” and determine the fate of new products
  • Democratisation is good, but not when it leads to mob law and the cult of the amateurthe crowd need (and want) to be led, not just lead.  Professional reviews and personal shopping recommendations offset the populism of user ratings and reviews – and also provide e-tailer opportunities for up-selling and cross-selling.
  • The seeds of future social commerce may be found in the children’s site Star Doll – an online avatar that you can dress up in the style of celebrities – and share with your friends. A portable social graph AND a portable preview avatar for trying on clothes/outfits virtually and sharing with friends makes big sense in fashion e-tailing

The article got us thinking about the authority heuristic (mental shortcut) in social commerce that people use to choose.  In addition to customer reviews, we know people are influenced by friends and experts.  Add celebrity into the mix – and you have the four corners of social influence covered for social commerce.

Social Commerce & The Four Corners of Social Influence

Four Corners of Social Influence

Social Commerce & The Four Corners of Social Influence

Intelligent Life – Article Archive

By Linda Grant
Created 15/01/2010 – 14:14
At first buying fashion online seemed silly. Now e-tail is changing the way we choose our clothes, writes Linda Grant in her latest Dress Sense column …
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2009

This coming June will mark the tenth birthday of the internet shopping site ASOS [1], which promised to sell you fashion as seen on screen-ie, on celebrities. It was one of the first clothing stores to exist only online and at the time seemed risible. Who would want to buy a frock you couldn’t try on? Ten years ago the majority of the population was yet to send an e-mail, let alone Twitter about what they’d just eaten for breakfast. If buying clothes by computer were to catch on, it would be, like catalogue shopping, the poor relation to the real thing.

A decade later and Zara has just announced that it’s about to set up shop online-it’s one of the last of the major high-street brands in Britain to do so. Meanwhile both John Lewis and Jaeger report that their online sales are second only to those in their flagship London shops. Online shopping [2] has changed not just the way we shop, but the way we dress and, potentially, the dresses that we are offered.

It all comes down to what the techies call web 2.0: interactivity. Net-a-Porter [3] morphed from virtual boutique into a killer combination of online stylist and elite club-not only selling you a dress, but packaging how to wear it (add this bag, this belt, this scarf). Its visitors can study pictures of the Paris shows an hour after the last model leaves the runway, then pre-order a catwalk dress by clicking on it. In a kind of fashion “X Factor”, shoppers are effectively deciding at the earliest stage in a collection’s life what will sell and what won’t.

The danger here is a creative hobbling of designers and fashion editors, with the public favouring mediocrity over innovation. Or maybe not. A couple of years ago, Marks & Spencer added Amazon-style reviews to a relaunched version of its website, for the first time allowing customers to talk back to the shop en masse. A particularly well-cut pair of reasonably priced jeans earnt 50 overwhelmingly favourable reviews, and-at least partly as a result-became a huge bestseller. Even I bought a pair. They may have found favour with the public, but there was nothing mediocre about them. Meanwhile a dress launched at the same time was mediocrity incarnate; judged “cheap-looking” by its audience, it died an instant retail death.

“It isn’t just that when you have a good product the sales go up,” says David Hughes, M&S’s director of e-commerce, “but because the customer trusts the reviews more than the brand, they are starting to influence offline purchases as well.” He told me how M&S noticed that a number of customers who bought, say, a Per Una dress online would also buy an Autograph jacket, because the two went well together. In stores, the two items would be in separate sections; so managers were instructed to move them adjacent to each other on the shop floor. Now technology is being developed that will allow us to hold the barcode of an item we’re trying on in the shop up to a mirror, which will respond by displaying other customers’ online reviews.

Just over the horizon lies a transformation of how we choose our clothes. Hughes argues that Star Doll-a dress-the-paper-doll game using what celebrities are wearing-holds the template for the future of online shopping, allowing you to try outfits on an uploaded picture of yourself. For the time being, most of the real brands on Star Doll are so juvenile as to be worthless to anyone over 12-Avril Lavigne for Kohl’s, anyone?-but the time can’t be far off when it could have a big sister: a site that might allow you to see not only what a Celine top looks like on you, but to plan every detail of an outfit by uploading pictures of your existing wardrobe, seeing how the top will work with what you already own, and then e-mailing a picture of the whole thing to the friend who once used to go shopping with you.

Online shopping can still seem impersonal, a long way from the original delight of wandering through a department store, looking, feeling, and perhaps trying on a £5,000 ballgown you can’t actually afford. And it’s worth bearing in mind the way Google has reportedly affected [4] the way we think, speeding up our absorption of information, but also limiting the depth to which we explore it. Fashion could get faster, but better-or faster, and worse. And what if those dressing-room mirrors allow other customers to reflect on what you’re trying on: will your logged-on friends tell you that your skirt is the wrong length, or your heels an unfashionable height? If so, eventually the ranks of the fashion police could be staffed by you and me.

(Linda Grant [5] is a novelist who appeared on last year’s Booker prize shortlist with “The Clothes on Their Backs”.)