In December, J. C. Penney became the first major retailer to put its full product catalog on Facebook, and recent changes to the Facebook platform will make it easier for more stores to follow suit. But Express believes it has delivered a tighter integration on the Express Facebook page than that of some other early social shopping stores, Jim Wright Sr., senior vice president of CRM and e-commerce said in an interview.
Some of the other social stores appear to have been built on top of third-party services from firms that specialize in creating social and mobile front ends for existing websites, Wright said. "Our concern at looking at those is that they're often scraped daily, not in real time." That is, catalog content is copied or "screen scraped" from the main website on a periodic basis, meaning it may not be up to the moment in terms of reflecting current inventory levels. "So there is a danger of transactions going through where products may be out of stock, or having promotions be out of synch," he said.
Instead of taking that shortcut, Express created the Facebook shopping experience internally, as an alternate user interface connected to the same Fry e-commerce platform used by the main website. "This way, the transactions are real time, connected to our inventory, with no third parties touching them on the back end."
Much like the express.com home page, the Shop Express tab on the company Facebook page invites visitors to browse down either a "for him" or "for her" path, depending on whether they want to see men's or women's clothing. Shoppers are then directed to a Facebook app that displays the company's product catalog as an HTML IFrame within the Facebook navigation scheme. When they go to check out, their credit card numbers are encrypted just as they would be in a regular Web shopping experience.
When shoppers view individual items, they can "like" or comment on them, optionally posting their thoughts about the product to their walls. Getting conversations going around those products will be critical to the success of the Facebook store. "If you think about it, it used to be customers might talk about products over the phone, or talk about them over the backyard fence. Now they talk about them with friends across the country," he said.
Wright said Express has seen something like that happening with the mobile version of its Web store, where customers are often "posting from their mobile phones, 'I'm about to buy this product, do you like this dress?'"
Even prior to launching the full catalog on Facebook, Express had been using its page to promote sales and special deals for Facebook fans, and customers have responded by linking to those items. "We've seen a good ROI on those efforts," Wright said. But the time had come to go further. Some Facebook integration mavens question whether it's wise to pack a full product catalog into the social media site, as opposed to highlighting a few special deals and then sending customers to the company website.
Wright is convinced offering the full catalog does make sense for Express customers. "If we offered one great product and you could buy it there, but you wanted to buy something else to go with it, it could be a little frustrating that you could only buy that one thing," he said. "Our customers don't usually buy one thing, they buy two or three."