How do businesses turn Instagram (FB) “likes” into sales dollars? That’s the multimillion-dollar question in a retail industry struggling to find the sweet spot between e-commerce and old-fashioned stores.
Nordstrom’s (JWN) answer: Build a sort of fake Instagram. In a platform that launches this morning, the department store has created a site called Like2Buy that looks like the social network and acts like the social network but links photos directly to product pages on its Web store and stores the photos that users “like.”
Nordstromwill still maintain its traditional Instagram feed, which nearly 529,000 people follow. But a link on its Instagram profile will connect users to its shadow site, where its Instagram photos can be clicked and items purchased. That additional step, in theory, is easier for shoppers than it would be to hunt for the product on the Web.
Bryan Galipeau, Nordstrom’s director of social media, says Like2Buy will stem a tide of questions the company has long been fielding in Instagram comments: Where can I buy this? Do you still carry this? How much does this cost?
“This is the first experience of its kind,” Galipeau said. “And it’s the closest thing out there—that I’m aware of—in terms of delivering a seamless shopping experience.”
Plenty of social networks lend themselves more readily to commerce, most notablyWanelo and Pinterest. On those sites, users build a sort of wish list from Web pages. Instagram, however, is a different social animal. It is simply a stream of photos without product details and it doesn’t allow users to propagate links beyond one Web address that can be included in the user’s profile.
That said, Instagram has a massive—and keenly engaged—foundation of users. It says 200 million people (and businesses such as Nordstrom) regularly log onto its platform, sharing about 60 million photos every day. Pinterest doesn’t share user stats, but recent estimates say its base is only about one-quarter as large.
Nordstrom is a step ahead of other brands on Instagram; its 529,000 followers dwarf the communities built by many of its rivals.
None of those brands, however, have been effective at cashing in on those fans. They have cobbled together a variety of techniques to link Instagram fans to their Web stores. Nordstrom, for example, has traditionally listed the item number of products featured on its Instagram feed, so people can more easily hunt the goods on the company’s Web store.
“Everybody is trying to hack Instagram,” said Apu Gupta, cofounder of Curalate, a Philadelphia-based company that built Nordstrom’s new product. Gupta likens a lot of retail Instagram feeds to “walking into a flea market.”
Curalate, meanwhile, is hoping to build similar platforms for many of the 450 clients that already pay it to track social media engagement and build digital marketing campaigns. That group includes a host of retail brands, including Gap (GPS), Urban Outfitters (URBN), Under Armour (UA), and Neiman Marcus.
“We came to this realization a few months ago,” Gupta said. “We think it’s going to be a very big deal.”
Stock is an associate editor for Businessweek.com.