Facebook Store Failures? Blame the Retailers, Not Facebook.

Bloomberg reporter Ashley Lutz filed a seemingly damming story about the failure of Facebook as a commerce platform by highlighting retailers who have closed their Facebook stores after a lack of success. Unfortunately the article fails to address the most important question, which is: did the stores fail because they’re on Facebook, or did they fail because they were bad stores? Lutz’s juicy, link bait title and high profile retailers make for compelling reading, but by only focusing on the platform, she completely ignores the role of the execution of the stores as a factor in their lack of success. And this is a big miss.

Facebook Stores are Where eCommerce Stores Were in 1997

If you’ve studied or used Facebook stores as they exist today, you know one thing for certain: they’re not very good. The experience isn’t unlike trying to shop on the original Amazon or eToys. It’s mostly clunky, and lacks the polish and refinement of today’s ecommerce sites. Worse, most Facebook stores represent nothing more than catalog pages from existing ecommerce sites shoe-horned into the Facebook chrome.  They are completely substandard around many best ecommerce practices including navigation, calls-to-action, ability to get product details and images, speed – the list goes on.

Many of these retailers, including GameStop, JC Penny and others, in their rush to get on the F-commerce train, launched stores that were doomed because the user experience was sub-par. The expectation that people would put up with a poor shopping experience simply because they were in the cozy confines of Facebook is where the real failure is – and not with Facebook.

In addition to a poor user-friendly shopping experience, few, if any of these sites took advantage of the benefits of being on Facebook. Many stores failed to integrate personalized recommendations, information about friend’s preferences and previous purchases, and any number of other social proof elements available on Facebook that could’ve helped these stores succeed.

These stores are truly the v1 efforts of F-commerce, and so we should not be surprised that they’ve failed. The failure of early Facebook stores doesn’t mean Facebook is a poor commerce platform, just like the failure of the first ecommerce stores proved that the Web was a bad platform for shopping.

Facebook Calls for New Ways of Shopping

Just like we’ve seen in 15 years of ecommerce, there’s a lot to learn and figure out about commerce in any new context, and old methods aren’t going to necessarily translate to a new medium. We should expect the same in a Web-to-Facebook transition, too. And until retailers get beyond the convention of ecommerce ported to Facebook, they’ll continue to fail. Their fine-tuned ecommerce paradigm will continue to falter in Facebook, which is a completely different medium. Just because Facebook lives on the Web does not mean that shopping on Facebook is the same as shopping on the Web.

Facebook Shares Responsibility in the Failures

For as much as I’ve blamed the failures of these stores on the retailers, Facebook must assume some responsibility for these failures. The Facebook chrome is unforgiving and difficult to work with for applications like shopping carts and store catalogs. There are few tools or special functionality built into the Facebook platform or API that make shopping on the site more valuable or enjoyable than shopping elsewhere.

Imagine, for instance, having the ability to shop with a friend on a Facebook store as easily as you can listen to a song with your friend on Facebook using Spotify. This is just one of many, easy-to-conceive ways that Facebook could make shopping easier on the site – not to mention the troves of data for recommendations, the social connections to leverage for social proof, etc. etc. The possibilities are limitless – and for their diversity all have one thing in common – none have been done well (if at all).

Until Facebook makes changes to make shopping easier and more interesting, retailers will continue to treat the platform as nothing more than a curiosity, and one that doesn’t have the same potential as the Web. When Facebook decides to focus on the online-shopping experience, and subsequently delivers tools to retailers that really leverage the platform is when we can expect more success.

Let Zynga At It

If there’s a company that understands the Facebook platform and how to best leverage it for commerce, it’s Zynga. The company already accounts for 12% of Facebook’s revenue, driven by virtual gifts and credits purchased for it’s host of viral games. There isn’t any reason that Zynga couldn’t turn it’s sights on creating a social ecommerce platform that made shopping as fun and engaging as it is to raise virtual cows. And whether they do or don’t get into ecommerce, the lessons of their success should be heeded by any retailer looking at F-commerce. Leveraging social connections, game mechanics and the other benefits of Facebook is what will make F-commerce an eventual success.

It’s Early Days

With the current shortcomings of Facebook stores it’s no wonder people opt for the brand website over Facebook. And while it may be an intriguing story to write when a few big brands shutter their v1 store-fronts, it’s important to look at all of the reasons for failure, including the user experience and the changes needed to make shopping on Facebook worthwhile. Hopefully this article will get Facebook focused on improving the tools for retailers so that there are new, innovative ways to shop rather than just replicating ecommerce on Facebook. But it would be a shame if brands took an article like this as any type of analysis that would suggest that they abandon Facebook as a potential platform for commerce. The potential is there, but it is, early days again.

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