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Holiday Shopping Is Chilly for 'Buy' Buttons at Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest

One Pinterest retailer launch partner is selling fewer than 10 items a day via Buyable Pins.

Vitaly Titov & Maria Sidelnikova / Shutterstock
Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

More than a year after Twitter and Facebook began placing Buy buttons on their social networks, their e-commerce initiatives still appear to be relegated to experimental side projects. And at Pinterest, the tech platform that many believe is most conducive to e-commerce, one of its mainstream launch partners is seeing fewer than 10 purchases a day via so-called Buyable Pins.

The lack of aggressiveness on the part of Facebook and Twitter, and tepid early results at Pinterest, highlight the myriad challenges all three platforms face in transforming their immense user bases into shoppers. The sluggishness of the combined efforts also serves as a warning to other industry players betting big on the idea of social commerce that it’s still unclear if consumers will make purchases in big numbers on platforms that aren’t mainly retail destinations. Spokespeople for the three companies declined to disclose sales numbers for these initiatives.

While each platform had its own reasons for pursuing e-commerce initiatives, the central idea was that they thought there was an opportunity to make it easier for their users to buy a product when they discover it on the platform. In theory, the usefulnesses of such a feature would be the biggest on mobile phones, where clicking through to make a purchase on another site can make purchases less likely because of uneven mobile webpage experiences.

Facebook was the first to take a crack. Sixteen months after Facebook first began testing Buy buttons on ads and regular posts to let people purchase products they discover on Facebook without leaving Facebook, the initiative is still being dubbed a beta test, restricted solely to online merchants who work with e-commerce software provider Shopify. The company has also recently added purchase capabilities to some Facebook business pages and to a dedicated shopping section of Facebook, but these features, too, are being characterized as “tests” that aren’t available to all Facebook users in the U.S.

A spokesman said the company will continue to test and evaluate these offerings, but made it clear that selling advertising is the top retail-related priority right now.

At Twitter, it’s still unclear how big of a priority e-commerce will be going forward under the leadership of new CEO Jack Dorsey. The company began placing Buy buttons in tweets in September of 2014, and struck partnerships in October of this year with software partners such as Bigcommerce and Stripe to get more merchants on board. Best Buy, for example, will soon join the program — just not in time for the just-passed Black Friday weekend. But regular Twitter users can still go weeks without seeing any tweets enabled with e-commerce; most Re/code colleagues I polled, who are absolute Twitter power users, said they never come across them at all.

While Twitter hired former Ticketmaster CEO Nathan Hubbard in 2013 to run the initiative, it appears other projects have taken priority at Twitter in the past year. Wall Street has been pressuring Twitter to come up with a fix for its user growth strategy, and it’s unlikely e-commerce will provide that answer. Instead, the company has been allocating big resources to projects like Moments, a product that organize a collections of tweets into a narrative, to help attract new users and retain current ones.

Then there’s Pinterest, the massive tech platform that retailers were most excited about for its e-commerce potential. The company began inserting Buyable Pins into its iPhone app in late June, and just added the feature to its Android app in early November. The company says more than 10,000 merchants have joined the program, including big retailers and brands like Macy’s, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Cole Haan and Tory Burch, but at least one of these big partners is seeing fewer than 10 purchases a day on Pinterest, according to a person with direct knowledge of the sales figures. This source and another also said that Pinterest insiders have privately admitted to being disappointed with early sales numbers.

A Pinterest spokesman declined to comment on this information, but said the company is encouraged by at least one bright spot. “Although it’s still early days with the program, we are hearing from merchants that many of their customers coming through Buyable Pins are new and we are driving higher mobile conversions,” he said in an email.

Last week, Pinterest’s commerce head told Re/code that this holiday season won’t be a make-or-break one for the shopping program.

“This is still a really early launch for us, so the plan is to learn from this holiday season, get feedback and then keep iterating on the feature and keep expanding the platform,” Pinterest commerce chief Michael Yamartino said.

Pinterest has added a Shopping category to its search feature that highlights products available for purchase and is working on other ways to display Buyable Pins in ways that won’t annoy users.

For now, Buy buttons won’t be the e-commerce industry’s hot thing this holiday season. And if they’re not by next season, it might be time to close up shop.

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