Has Facebook cracked f-commerce?

“People don’t come to Facebook to shop” is the common belief. A number of companies have given up on f-commerce and thousands more haven’t even tried because of this axiom.

So why then is Facebook launching Facebook Gifts, a way for users to buy their friends physical goods directly from News Feed, Timeline and mobile?

Facebook may very well be a party, not a shopping mall. But the company has realized that sometimes people need to bring gifts to the party. The big difference between Facebook Gifts and other f-commerce efforts is that Facebook isn’t trying to get users to browse and buy things for themselves. It’s suggesting that users shop for their friends.

How well this will work remains to be seen, but it’s important to distinguish what Facebook is doing from the failed efforts of companies that previously tried to sell things on the social network. The biggest problem with those early attempts was that businesses essentially recreated their websites in a Facebook tab, doing little to understand what makes the platform unique and building a community that would want to use the shop. Successful f-commerce companies like ShopIgniter and Payvment went beyond setting up basic storefronts and instead promoted exclusive offers or recommended items based on what a user’s friends liked.

These companies found opportunity in impulse buys and optimized the flow from discovery to checkout. ShopIgniter, for instance, created Flash applications to run limited-time offers for fans to buy Kaenon sunglasses directly from the feed. Payvment recently eliminated its shopping cart and created a whole website focused on one-click buying and sharing items through Open Graph.

Facebook has integrated Gifts in the birthdays section of its homepage and in the publisher on friends’ profiles. Users don’t have to enter payment information right away and they don’t need to know a friend’s address. This reduces the biggest points of friction in most online shopping experiences.

Facebook will likely further optimize the design of Gifts to help users find the right product for their friend faster. For example, improving its recommended gifts algorithm to be more personalized for each recipient, allowing users to create wishlists (maybe using the “want” button) and incorporating friends’ Likes and past purchases to show which gifts are most popular. Facebook might also find a way for users to buy gifts as a group so that two or more friends can split the cost of a larger gift. Target currently has an app on its page called “Give With Friends,” which allows users to do this for Target gift cards, which had 6,000 monthly active users last month, according to AppData. Social hooks like these could do really well for Facebook Gifts.

A number of factors will determine if Facebook is ultimately successful with Gifts, from merchant relationships and inventory to customer service and privacy issues. From the outset, though, it seems Facebook wants to prove that its “social design” approach will work in ways that traditional commerce methods haven’t on the site.

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