Retailers Get Social With Their Customers

Barbara Thau|Special to,

Think local, mobile and authentic: That appears to be the mantra guiding retailers’ social media efforts these days.

Hot Topic's Facebook page

As the blueprint for the new marketing frontier continues to unfurl, merchants are now tapping social media to cultivate a bond with—and even entertain—shoppers on an increasingly local level. They are reaching out to consumers on their smart phones and mobile devices.

They are also using social media to assert their distinct brand authority, be it as a fashion leader— the Gap and Target—or a trusted tech outlet, like Best Buy.

While the jury is still out on how  a presence on Facebook, Twitter and Google's YouTube translates into actual sales gains and new shoppers for retailers, merchants are, for now, focused on building a sense of community and customer loyalty throughout the social media universe.

The social media landscape is really “the wild west,” says Jeffrey Grau, a retail analyst with eMarketer, a research-and-trend analysis firm on digital marketing and media. “Right now, retailers are considered a success if they’re building a fan base and engaging consumers.”

To that end, retailers need analytic tools to help them identify their most influential, social media fans, he says.

While those metrics have yet to surface, social media can still be “hugely valuable for a company,” says David Kirkpatrick, author of the forthcoming book "The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That is Connecting the World."

For example, a message that Target or the Gap—two early, aggressive Facebook marketers—puts on the social media site, which has 500,000 active users, “is something that lends itself to being shared by their fans,” he says.

And as the average Facebook user has at least 125 friends, “It’s viral marketing of the highest order. It’s the automation of word of mouth" at a very low marketing cost to the retailer, says Kirkpatrick.

That said, both retailers and consumers are still getting familiar with the medium.

“They’re playing with it [social media],” says Tracy Benson, senior director of interactive marketing and emerging media for Best Buy. As a result, “What were trying to do, which we think will eventually lead to purchase intent and stronger sales, is enable that conversation.”

Best Buy: Personal Tech

For one, Best Buy set up a "Twelpforce" of 2,500 tech-and social-media savvy “blue shirts,” or store associates, to answer shoppers’ Twitter questions on everything from how to hook up their home theater systems to gift suggestions.

A person in Minneapolis, for example, can get feedback on whether or not a certain nephew would prefer a Sony Playstation or a Wii as a graduation present, says Benson.

“Within seconds, you get a response," she says. "People on Twitter expect you to respond immediately. We use the Twelp force as a way to drive local connections to our blue shirts.”

The retailer also tweets about special merchandise deals on Twitter, because its 140-character limitation lends itself to quick retail promotions, while Facebook is about the conversation, merchants said.

Best Buy, on the other hand, facilitates discussions on Facebook among shopper subsets, such as photography enthusiasts, who exchange product suggestions and trade secrets.

The company is now focusing on forging a connection between social and mobile platforms, particularly as mobile phones “become smarter and smarter,” says Benson

The retailer is also trying to enhance the mobile experience for shoppers through, the mobile version of, with product ratings and reviews to help consumers shop “on a very local level based on where they are with that phone,” she said.

“If we can better support their needs in the purchasing decisions...we think that will lead to greater brand preference [for Best Buy], which ultimately leads to showing up in sales,” Benson said. But what works in traditional marketing doesn’t necessarily fly in the social media sphere, she said.

The Gap: Applying Itself

Like Best Buy, Gap is putting a premium on the seamless convergence of mobile devices, such as the iPad, and social networks.

“With the proliferation of mobile devices, we want to engage customers where they are,” says Daniel Rubin, a Gap spokesperson. With the introduction of the iPad, “consumers are shifting how they consume content, shop, and access the web.”

Gap's new iPad application

In a bid to build buzz and assert its credibility as an arbiter of style, the retailer bowed the Gap’s 1969 Stream iPad application this month, a digital marketing campaign targeting 25 to 35 year olds that “socializes the shopping experience,” he says.

The application features exclusive content from Gap designers, musicians and fashion insiders for its 1969 clothing and accessories line, including a video of Project Runway’s stylist Jay Sario outfitting real shoppers in the Gap’s West Hollywood store, as well as Twitter feeds from the retailer’s head designer Patrick Robinson.

The idea is to inspire shoppers, enable them to buy Gap merchandise in a  “social commerce” environment, and stimulate an “authentic conversation” between shoppers and the Gap brand, says Rubin. 

All content on the app is tagged to make it easy to buy the specific Gap item in real time. The app also enables shoppers to share ideas with friends on social networks.

Hot Topic: Culture Club

Teen retailer Hot Topic , known for its music-inspired clothing and accessories—from Lady Gaga and Bob Marley T-shirts to Goth-inspired dresses—is focusing on beefing up local, social networking content. The 680-unit chain has individual Facebook pages for many of its stores that are set up by store managers.

Hot Topic will do “more and more” decentralized marketing to local communities and regions through Facebook pages," says CEO Betsy McLaughlin. “It’s about what’s going on in pop culture and music—that’s what we’re trying to present .... We do not use Facebook to push promotions or products specifically. We’re trying to stimulate conversation,” she said.

“So much of what we do is about emerging [local] artists and licensing, and the discovery of that," adds McLaughlin. We have experts already in our stores, who are very familiar with social media, they are the marketing gurus in their own area.”

Twitter also serves as a kind of trouble-shooting service, where Hot Topic addresses shopper issues and complaints.)

Target: Narrow Focus

Meanwhile, Target is working social media to drum up an aura of cool-cachet for its limited edition, spring collection of Zac Posen apparel, the designer wunderkind known for his glamorous runway looks.

The line for Target (created to evoke the best summer of a girl’s life, according to Posen), with edgy flourishes, such as bold graffiti prints, mettalics and exposed zippers, is getting an equally edgy social-media push.

One part of the digital marketing equation is a 1960s-esque, black-and-white film by Gia Coppola, which follows the girl band The Like as they primp in their hotel room before a concert, wearing the Posen collection. Target first shared the video exclusively on, the online home of fashion bible Vogue, and then posted it to YouTube.

“It’s very important that we look for alternative ways to reach this guest,” says Joshua Thomas, a Target spokesman.

Social media sites like YouTube attract a captive audience, says Kirkpatrick. "if something becomes popular, it becomes very popular very fast. That’s the nature of social media.”