Random is the right way to describe Facebook’s attempted invasion of Amazon’s turf. With skimpy product selection, no reviews and limited browsing options, Facebook’s dedicated feed of products is not a great way to shop. At least not yet. But this is only Facebook’s first attempt. It brings with it a ton of knowledge about you and its position as where people spend the most time online.
For now, it’s best at helping you track down something cool you saw in your News Feed. To succeed in shopping, Facebook will need to leverage its unique dataset to offer curation other services can’t match. That way, it won’t need to index every product on earth. Just the ones you’ll actually Like.
The Quest To Absorb Shopping
Unveiled in October, the Facebook Shopping feed is currently available to a small set of users in the United States. It’s part of Facebook’s quest to absorb the Internet. Essentially, it wants the most popular online activities to happen inside Facebook where it can glean data, serve ads and connect people, rather than outside. Other prongs of this strategy include hosted videos (instead of YouTube), Instant Articles (instead of publishers’ websites), Instant Ads (instead of brands’ websites), in-feed Buy buttons, and a dozen other features and standalone apps.
If Facebook can absorb shopping and make it a common activity inside its walled garden, brands will fill the social network with pretty products and the ad dollars to promote them. It merely needs to harness existing interest, as Facebook says a survey showed 50 percent of its users come to Facebook looking for products.
But it’s difficult to shop inside a distracting News Feed filled with friends’ photos and other content. That’s why Facebook built the Shopping Feed. Facebook’s product marketing lead for mobile app ads and commerce Emma Rodgers told TechCrunch that it’s a single place to browse the different products being showcased across the social network.
Facebook has several big advantages that give it a shot at owning some of the online commerce pie. Most importantly, it has a wealth of demographic, interest and activity data about its users that it’s collected from their profiles, social graphs, likes and News Feed activity. However, it is lacking understanding of people’s purchase intent, which usually flows to Google and Amazon in the form of keyword searches.
Facebook already has the engagement, it just needs to leverage it by convincing users that shopping doesn’t have to interrupt their Facebooking. The service accounts for a whopping 13 percent of all time spent on major mobile apps, making it No. 1. Facebook is also slowly growing its collection of credit card data, which lets people instantly buy products without having to fiddle with typing in payment info.
The problem is that Facebook is 20 years late to the Shopping game. Amazon has spent that time cataloguing the world’s wares, developing relationships with retailers, and building out product recommendation engines. While people might be interested in products on Facebook, they’re not used to purposefully shopping there. Stumbling upon an item shared by a friend or in an ad can fit naturally into the social experience. Browsing and searching specifically for things to buy is a very new trick to teach 1.55 billion old dogs.
Retail At Random
Facebook’s Shopping Feed is accessible from the More drawer’s navigation bookmarks alongside Events and Groups. When opened, you’re confronted with a search bar and browsing options for men’s and women’s options above a feed of “Today’s Featured Promotions” and products deemed “Top Picks.”
First, let’s dig into the promotions. Back in 2012 Facebook launched a way for Pages to share Offers that users could click to receive an email with a promo code for discounts. Now Facebook is putting them front and center in the Shopping Feed, with a glossy Offer image above three products from that retailer you could apply the discount to.
It seems that Facebook wants to highlight that it can get you special deals not available elsewhere, and that’s smart. For example, I’m seeing Offers of free shipping on t-shirts, 30 percent off dress shirts, 25 percent off art, or 25 percent off my whole home decoration purchase at different shops.
Below the offers are Products You May Like. Facebook tells me the Shopping Feed test is focused mainly on physical products in the apparel and accessories categories. It’s surfacing products that are relevant to you based on the things you like and do, such as your connections, likes and interests on Facebook. For now, it’s not using your activity off of FB such as cookies to inform which products to show you.
The products are laid out in a two-wide masonry grid very similar to Pinterest. Each includes which shop sells it, a photo, a title for the product, the current price (with an optional striked-out former price), and buttons to Save the item to your profile or Share it with friends. The random nature of the products Facebook shows here make browsing the near-infinite scrolling feed seem aimless. It’s hard not to feel like a pawn of consumerism when scanning the random collection of items for something to buy.
Tapping through a product provides more photos, product details, size and quantity options, shipping and return policies, and a Buy button. In some cases, you’ll be shuttled out to the retailer’s website to complete the purchase, while some products can be bought seamlessly with your payment details on file with Facebook. Retailers get to decide where the payments happens, but the latter is much more convenient.
Importantly, Facebook isn’t automatically sharing your browsing or purchase behavior with friends as it did with the disastrous, privacy-breaking Beacon feature Mark Zuckerberg had to apologize for in 2007.
Browsing Through The Blue
If you have a little more intention about what you’re trying to buy or at least who you’re shopping for, you can open the Women’s and Men’s tabs at the top. They reveal categories like Clothing, Shoes, and Bags & Luggage, which further break down into boxes including Shirts, Outerwear and Accessories.
But inside these sections, the haphazard nature again derails the experience. Suits costing $37 and $245 are displayed next to each other. The shipping costs are hidden until checkout, so you’ll find some retailers click-baiting users with $15 shirts that require another $15 to deliver. And without reviews, it’s tough to tell the quality of some of the obscure brands and retailers you’ll find in the Shopping feed.
The search experience is perhaps more disappointing. We’ve grown accustomed to huge indices of well-ranked results that hit close to what we’re searching for. But on Facebook, the limited inventory of products means results are spotty and irrelevant items sometimes appear at the top. This is because Facebook is only showing products entered by retailers testing its Shop feature on mobile pages.
A search for “Nike Lebron James” brought up phone cases instead of the basketball star’s signature shoes. “iPhone cord” showed me Halloween costumes and running holsters for phones before overpriced cables. More particular brand searches brought up zero or very few results. For comparison, Amazon consistently found wide selections of the right products at the best prices with reviews aplenty.
Overall, if you’re looking to mindlessly scroll through quirky products, Facebook might provide a little fun. But right now it’s certainly not the right place to do serious shopping, research purchases, or find something particular.
Be The Stylist, Not The Shopping Mall
Judging Facebook against industry leader Amazon isn’t quite fair. The current Facebook Shopping Feed is more of a minimum viable product that a polished launch. That’s why it’s only in testing with a small group. Facebook is trying to learn. Amazon is a meticulously optimized product refined by decades of intense usage.
Still, the biggest issue here isn’t how Facebook is executing on its version of a Shopping feed, but the high-level direction. Maybe with enough time, Facebook can attain the inventory coverage to be a comprehensive shopping destination. It’s aggressively trying to build out its search feature for content in the News Feed, which will give it a better understanding of what users want, not just who they are.
But in the near-term, Facebook might be better off becoming an alternative rather than a competitor to Amazon and Google.
The easiest way to do that could be to focus on using its data treasure chest to make pointed recommendations. Facebook could take everything it knows about our identities and behavior, and show what people similar to us are talking about, taking photos of, liking, clicking and buying in an anonymized, privacy-safe way. That’s a strategy that would greatly benefit from Facebook’s investment in artificial intelligence and machine vision.
In essence, Facebook should try to be the expert shop clerk or the stylish friend rather than the shopping mall itself. We are busy, impatient, and indecisive. Don’t give us a million products to choose from. Just tell us what’s really special. Facebook could win at shopping by relying on and understanding its greatest resource: the humanity of the people who use it.