Instagram: a wonderful place to shop

It wasn't designed for it, but canny shoppers - and sellers - in the US are using Instagram to bag some bargains


Instagram, the photo-sharing app owned by Facebook, is a great place to skim through pictures of friends - celebrating their birthdays, eating at lavishly decorated dinner tables and enjoying their midday coffees. Something else we can soon grow to love about the brand is much less common: it’s a wonderful place to shop.

Instagram isn’t designed to be an e-commerce site, and that’s part of its appeal. Internet giants like have finely calibrated algorithms that suggest items and services before the user even thinks about them, and they are very useful. But there is something undeniably charming about flicking through photographs that are carefully curated and personally posted by some Instagram sellers, who regularly offer one-of-a-kind treasures. For some, Instagram resembles a modern-day bazaar - one that can be visited on your phone when you have a free moment.

We peek at pictures while riding in an elevator or standing in line in a shop. A huge part of the appeal is that the goods are sandwiched in your Instagram feed, in between friends’ selfies and pictures of snow-covered spots where they’ve stopped during the day. Stumbling across an unexpected and gorgeous find like a wool Aztec throw or a pair of leather boots on a social app like Instagram brings with it the excitement of discovery, not unlike the titillating thrill you get when coming across a rare find at a flea market.

I’ve gotten that feeling from what I’ve seen in the postings of a vintage boutique with two outlets which regularly offers photographs of items like faded denim jackets and Stevie Nicks-inspired dresses, alongside pricing, sizing information and catchy descriptions. When followers spy something they want to buy on their Instagram feed, they can leave a comment below the picture to reserve it. Then they call in with their credit card information to buy it. Beverly Hames, an owner of the shop, says she began posting items on Instagram as an experiment a year and a half ago. Now, sales deriving from those postings make up 20 to 40 percent of the store’s daily revenue, she says. “At first, it was just my friends buying things,” she says. “But then, people who weren’t my friends started commenting and calling.” Items tend to sell in a “matter of minutes,” and many frequent shoppers keep their credit cards on file to streamline the process.

Last week, I visited one of the shops and talked with Hames. Midway through our conversation, she received a notification that the warm red winter coat that she posted moments earlier had just been sold. “Oop!” she yelped, grabbing the item off the rack and preparing it for its new owner. Aside from us, the shop was largely empty, very likely because of blustery weather, but there was a large sack of items wrapped and ready for delivery. Hames has joined a wave of entrepreneurs and sellers who realise that the next generation of mobile commerce may result from something as simple as transforming an Instagram feed or a facebook page into a kind of revolving storefront.

Connie Wang, the head of style at Refinery29, a fashion site, says the intimacy of Instagram adds to its appeal as a place to shop, so much so that users are willing to put up with the inconveniences of the platform, which isn’t designed to handle transactions. “It’s so much more personal,” she says. “It’s not a Facebook or Twitter where everything seems like an advertorial. On Instagram, it feels like a discovery because you aren’t there to shop - but if something catches your eye and it’s available, you’re more likely to buy it.” Hames says the store first marketed itself on Facebook but did not want to pay the fees associated with targeting ads at potential customers. And although she calles herself a “late adopter” to social media and the latest technologies, she quickly recognized that a new visual language was taking shape on mobile and social applications, particularly ones that depicted artsy, lifestyle images.

“All the popular pictures on Instagram are clothes or food,” she says. Hames says Instagram extends her store’s retail footprint and draws in customers during inclement weather or on weekdays, when most people are at their offices or other day jobs. “On the most miserable days this winter, when it was snowing and slurry, 90 per cent of our sales came from Instagram,” she says. It also helps that the owners have become adept at using social media. Their familiarity with Instagram helps them avoid missteps. For example, although Hames is also an investor in a Manhattan bar, she doesn’t try the same tactics for advertising and marketing it. “There are only so many pictures you can post of people drinking in a bar,” she said.

Hames, now in her early 30s, used to work as a personal shopper at Barneys New York. She says there is value in bonding with an online community and reaching people where they already spend much of their time - on mobile phones and in social media apps. Her two boutiques have a total of 5,000 followers, “which may not sound like a lot for a big brand or retail store,” she says. “But is a lot for a small boutique.” She says she worries that Instagram will get hip to their tactics - if it isn’t already - and either create restrictions or, worse, institute fees for businesses leveraging Instagram, which Facebook bought in 2012 for $1 billion.

Instagram executives say they have no plans to halt e-commerce on the site, so long as a seller doesn’t violate the company’s terms of service, such as by engaging in spamming. But Instagram has struggled to figure out how to make money. Its own early dabbling in advertising has been rocky, at best, and has not progressed past a testing phase. Hames notes that many regular Instagram users have begun using the app to sell items from their closets, largely under the popular hashtag #shopmycloset. “I’m sure this bubble will burst somehow,” she says. “Either it will get oversaturated by other companies selling on Instagram or they will start charging.” That’s the way of the world. But some of us will always want intimacy in shopping - and, for now at least, the casual approach that’s possible on Instagram is often a treat.

The New York Times News Service

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