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Study Says Web Shoppers Crave 'Social' Experience

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SAN FRANCISCO Up to now, e-commerce sites have largely focused on making the buying process as efficient as possible. But shopping is not always a rational process and online marketers will need to tap into the non-rational, "social" side of shopping to be successful in coming years, according to a new study by technology research firm Gartner.

According to the study, released May 22, there are two kinds of online shoppers. First is the goal-oriented solo shopper, who has an immediate need that leads to a specific objective and "has a good idea where the item will be found. The solo hunter wants to find the item quickly and leave with the catch," the study said.

The other is the social shopper, who seeks a pleasant experience and emotional connections to other shoppers—via such things as reviews, bulletin boards, blogs and shared videos—as much as they seek out a specific item to buy. "Social shopping can often lead to purchases that the shoppers had not planned to make," read the study. These shoppers make up an equal or larger pool of customers, according to the study, and are currently being underserved by online marketers.

Often women are social shoppers and men are solo shoppers, but the same person can exhibit both solo and social behaviors depending on the product and their interests, per the the study.

Marketers can appeal to social shoppers by participating in community-based Web environments that "deliver an integrated social experience" such as Second Life, said the study. But generally, it claimed, the type of community that social shoppers crave is not offered by the current generation of Web sites.

In order to appeal to social shoppers, analyst Ray Valdes, who oversaw the study, recommended sites adopt four characteristics: an extremely simple buying process; a seamless blending of shopping and nonshopping activities; free-form information not controlled by one vendor; and information and links to other vendor locations.

That's a tall order for companies accustomed to keeping customers on their own site and controlling their brand information. Fair Indigo, a clothing e-commerce site founded last year by former executives of Land's End, has sought to be an emotional brand since its inception in September 2006. Its site introduces users to the people who make the clothes; tells them about the practices of its factories; and encourages customers to rate and review the products.

But the company is wary of becoming even more social. "I'm not sure I want our site to be a place for people to chat or browse around for the latest hot product," said founder Bill Bass, formerly svp of e-commerce for Land's End. "I'm not sure you can get the shopping mall experience by clicking on your computer."

Jordan Warren, president of Agency.com in San Francisco, who has worked on both integrated and online campaigns, said marketers only need to look to Amazon and eBay to understand how community building helps sales and branding. "Both sites let the user make efficient rational purchases and also allow emotional social purchases," where users can browse around, study what others have to say and contribute their own thoughts, he says. Amazon particularly knows how to use its data to "enhance the community experience. For instance, the site tells you that the people who bought the product you are considering also liked these other products," he said. The key challenge is knowing when to promote community, when it will be valuable and "not let it be a distraction that unnecessarily slows down the transaction."