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Online shopping changed, and we barely noticed

Social media encourages us to shop, even when we’re not trying to.

A woman sitting at a cafe table with a credit card in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. Nattakorn Maneerat/EyeEm/Getty Images

After months spent bombarding me with ads, the Spanish shoe brand Alohas eventually won over what little willpower I had. I purchased a pair of their sandals directly from Instagram, and when the shoes arrived, posted them on my Instagram Stories — only to hear from at least 10 other women admitting that they, too, have been served up countless Alohas ads and were considering a purchase. Like most of these women, I wasn’t actively shopping for sandals. Shopping is, by my definition, an intentional act that requires going to a store or at least a website. But thanks to Alohas’ aggressive Instagram marketing push, I saw the sandals everywhere; like every-time-I-open-the-app everywhere. Finally, I bought them, but the ads will probably keep on coming.

Constant, frictionless consumption is big business’s wet dream, and while we’re not quite there yet, we’ve gotten a little closer. First there were shops, owned by local shopkeepers, and catalogs that allowed you to order what you needed right from home. Next came malls and big-box stores, selling everything you could ever want under one enormous roof. In the ’80s, Americans became familiar with home shopping channels on TV, but in the ’90s, e-commerce was born and blew the doors off the joint. The next few decades were dedicated to making shopping from your computer as easy as possible. The problem today seems to be how to keep people spending when they’re not even shopping.

To the average shopper, the distinction between social commerce and e-commerce is almost irrelevant. It’s all online shopping anyway, and e-commerce isn’t going anywhere. But in the grand scheme of American consumerism, it does matter. With e-commerce, you need to head to a specific website to buy or complete a purchase, but with social commerce (the blending together of social media and e-commerce), the buying process is completed without ever leaving the social media app, putting us one step closer to a state of ambient shopping, as I’ve called it before. Now, you can be scrolling Instagram or TikTok or Facebook or Pinterest and, boom, suddenly you’re buying the Revlon One-Step, liquid chlorophyll, or color-changing lights. It might seem silly, but it’s a big expansion of when and where we buy, and it’s been a long time coming.

A brief history of social media-driven commerce

The internet has a very short memory and a tendency to forget developments that set the stage for something much bigger. Take, for example, Spark, a social media platform launched in 2017 for Amazon Prime members, which replicated features from Instagram and Pinterest to offer a shoppable feed of Amazon products. The app, which TechCrunch described as “fairly bland” and “transactional,” was shut down in 2019 after not taking off. That same year, Instagram launched its own in-app checkout option, after introducing shopping and product tags into the Explore page. Unlike Amazon, the biggest social networks didn’t have much skin in the e-commerce game. They have, however, spent years trying to get users accustomed to buying things on their apps. In most cases, the changes were incremental or even temporary — until they suddenly weren’t.

There was a time when it was “audacious to think of building an alternative to Amazon,” said Nathan Hubbard, former vice president of global media and commerce at Twitter. During his tenure from 2013 to 2016, part of his job was figuring out how Twitter could introduce commerce into its platform. Most social networks at the time were trying to crack the same code: crafting a direct-to-consumer marketplace that people would use within the existing infrastructure of their platform. In 2014, Facebook began testing a “buy” button that would let users shop from the site, a few weeks after Twitter did. So did Tumblr and eventually Pinterest, with “buyable pins.”

Still, Amazon’s dominance in the e-commerce landscape has made it hard to challenge, and building out commerce integrations required time and money, often without the promise of success. “There was the understanding that Amazon as a marketplace was expensive for a lot of brands, and they don’t have direct control over their relationship to consumers,” Hubbard told Vox. “The idea was that we could leverage Twitter as a platform to do that, but it was going to be a lot of work to do these commerce integrations.”

With Spark, Amazon was acknowledging that shopping would be moving off of its platform and into a social space. But while Spark couldn’t manufacture the user base to make it stick, the social spaces we already loved were on their way to combining mindless scrolling with buying stuff. While Twitter partnered early on with Shopify and Stripe for some of its experimental commerce initiatives, it ultimately didn’t commit to its expansion as aggressively as other platforms. There were also other obstacles: Apps like Twitter were realizing the challenges of convincing users to shift from a social mindset to a consumer one, and Shopify had yet to fully scale.

The backbone of these social commerce expansions has relied on partnerships with Shopify. Instagram’s 2017 integration with the e-commerce company was crucial in shaping the app’s shopping landscape for consumers and brands. Facebook, Pinterest, Google, Snap, and, most recently, TikTok also have ongoing partnerships, which allows Shopify merchants to easily list products on partnered platforms and reach new audiences without needing to redirect interested buyers beyond the app. The concept and technology, as simple as they sound, have historically been unavailable for small retailers.

According to Lola Oyelayo-Pearson, Shopify’s director of UX, money, and channels, the company has spent years building these channel integrations, but they didn’t consider social commerce as something wholly new. It was simply another vehicle for merchants to connect with buyers. Instagram, even before the 2017 integration, had already been a significant driver of Shopify merchant traffic. “The idea was, if a merchant has an opportunity to find a buyer outside their online store, we want to enable that on Shopify,” said Oyelayo-Pearson. “An online store is basically a storefront. There’s no guarantee anyone will show up, but social platforms allow any merchant, big or small, to build an audience.”

As a platform, Shopify has positioned itself as the commerce solution for digitally native brands from DTC staples like Allbirds and Brooklinen to influencer-led efforts like that of Jeffree Star and Shane Dawson. Across the world, 1.4 million full-time jobs are currently supported by companies using Shopify. It is, as Patrick Sisson previously reported for Vox, a one-stop shop for aspiring merchants, well-known DTC brands, and creators: “Shopify argues that by creating a merchant-first software product and constantly adapting it to fast-moving changes in how we shop online, it helps support more entrepreneurship and new business, which ends up benefiting the consumer in the long run.”

Social partnerships, then, mutually benefit buyers and sellers by creating more avenues for discovery and outreach. For decades, small businesses have been localized, relying on foot traffic or community networks to garner traction and make sales. Today, starting a brand, launching a store, and gaining a following is theoretically easier than ever. The viral power of TikTok or an influencer recommendation on Instagram has allowed certain products and brands to garner cult followings in a significantly short period of time, sometimes overnight. “Social media networks provide the audience, and we provide the storefront,” Oyelayo-Pearson said.

The pandemic accelerated online shopping. Platforms are capitalizing on that opportunity.

The number of social commerce shoppers grew by 25 percent from 2019 to 2020, according to an Insider Intelligence report, from almost 64 million to 80 million consumers, who buy items through apps like Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest. That number is expected to surpass 100 million by 2023. That still doesn’t compare to Amazon’s 147 million US Prime subscribers, but this growth has been critical for smaller businesses, and Bezos is taking note. Modern Retail’s Michael Waters reported that the e-commerce giant appears to be replicating the aesthetics of social media on its platform to get shoppers to stay there longer.

During the pandemic, many social platforms have expanded their shopping features by developing tools for small businesses or generally signaling a greater investment in commerce. TikTok, for example, unveiled a public page in February devoted to its shopping function Seller University, and has partnered with Shopify to give sellers more opportunities to reach users. Snap recently acquired Fit Analytics, a company that helps people pick the right size of clothing when they shop online. And in February, YouTube announced its plan to expand e-commerce tools, which allow viewers to buy directly from creators.

“It was really with the pandemic that we accelerated our attention and our investments to make sure we were doing everything we could to support our business community,” said Layla Amjadi, director of product management for Instagram Shopping. “Covid isn’t temporary, and habits have permanently shifted. We want to help businesses navigate what is frankly a permanent shift in consumer behavior when it comes to shopping.”

Increasingly, social platforms are turning into official shopping destinations — not just places for product discovery. While it has taken time and a pandemic, consumers are slowly acknowledging them as such. Pinterest’s head of growth and shopping product Dan Lurie told The Drum that the app is different from other apps in that its users aren’t looking for social interaction. “They’re ready and willing to shop and discover new brands,” Lurie said. “It’s that intent that makes Pinterest a different kind of platform.”

Intent, however, can easily become a moot point with the popularity and effectiveness of targeted ads. Consumerism in America has become a passive activity; users are programmatically encountering must-have products on their feeds without even searching for them through sponsored posts, ads, or algorithmic suggestions.

“We always say that people come to Instagram for their friends but stay for their interests,” said Amjadi of Instagram. “Commerce activity was a natural next step between people and brands and also creators, because we were also hearing that people were not just coming to shop from brands but from specific creators.”

For the most part, consumers have grown immune to this unceasing ad stream because it caters so specifically to our needs, but it hasn’t always been this way. Instagram was almost entirely ad-free until 2015; so was TikTok (briefly) until 2019. Still, people can only handle so many branded posts, even if they are tailor-made. Social networks, to an extent, need to feel authentic, even if products are crammed down your throat every time you scroll. In a bid toward commercialized authenticity, Facebook is turning to influencers and creators. Billions of dollars have been poured into influencer marketing from brands and advertisers; now, Facebook and Instagram want to make it easier for influencers to sell their followers stuff.

Instagram thinks influencer marketing and selling are the future of social commerce

On April 27, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Instagram will launch Creator Shops, an expansion of its existing shopping features initially built for businesses and store owners. These tools will make it easier for creators and celebrities to sell their own products directly to users, without them needing to leave the app. A Facebook spokesperson later clarified in an email to Vox that to be a creator, a user would have to convert their personal or business profile into a creator account and comply with various company agreements to use the commerce tools.

In addition to these creator storefronts, Facebook is also developing a marketplace that will connect brands to influencers (similar to TikTok’s creator marketplace) and an affiliate program that allows these influencers to earn a cut from the product sales they generate.

Zuckerberg has positioned these new features as a boon to creators and the growing “creator economy,” and they likely are. But this move also signals a continued focus on commerce, and the next step seems to be to help individual creators become direct sellers, as ambassadors for a brand or for their own merchandise. This isn’t a radical idea; the most recognizable names in fashion and beauty, like Patrick Ta and Kylie Jenner, have launched their own product lines. And with the launch of a creator marketplace, Facebook is looking to not only standardize sponsored content but integrate it more smoothly into the app.

If you’re an average Facebook or Instagram user, these updates are probably not that interesting to you. Most of this stuff is happening on the seller’s end, after all. You’re probably thinking that this has little to no impact on how you buy or who you choose to buy from. But we get used to things, and platforms are so good at adding little tweaks and useful features, like an innocuous button or tag that just makes our lives a little easier. Under the guise of offering a social product, these apps have Trojan-horsed users into ceaseless consumption.

These gradual changes eventually compound with something as significant as Instagram’s interface overhaul, which was reoriented to emphasize Reels (its alternative to TikTok) and Shops. And then, before you know it, you’re starting to shop on Instagram, an app that had virtually no ads six years ago (if you can even remember what the internet was like six years ago). Product placement has never been so explicit, but it’s so plentiful that people no longer bat an eye at how candid this advertising is. Just as Amazon’s one-click technology introduced impulse buying to a generation of shoppers, social commerce will affect not just consumer behavior but the types of brands that become household names. And increasingly, content creators will have a larger role in directly influencing what we buy. Can you shop till you drop if your digital shopping carts are never full?