Small Retailers Open Up Storefronts on Facebook Pages

Eilene Zimmerman, New York Times
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images

When Mandie Miller left her job as an on-air traffic reporter in Charlotte, N.C., to have her first child, she started baking cakes for friends, just for fun. The response was so positive that in April 2009 she started a business, Got What It Cakes.

Ms. Miller put up a Web site, but about five months later her sister created a Got What It Cakes Facebook page. That’s when the business started to grow. Cake orders went from two or three a weekend to six to 10; now Ms. Miller is turning away another 10 each weekend. Annual revenue at the end of her second year in business was a little more than $40,000.

Got What It Cakes is part of a new wave of online commerce: F-commerce. Social media specialists say the term was coined in 2009 to describe the growing number of businesses that sell through a Facebook page. Payvment, a start-up that provides support for Facebook shopping transactions, says it has 170,000 clients and is signing on about 1,500 stores a week, most with fewer than five employees.

The rise of F-commerce has been largely haphazard, something Facebook did not instigate or promote. A spokesman declined to discuss the phenomenon, except to acknowledge, “Retailers are experimenting in a number of ways.”

Small businesses seem to be having more success on Facebook than large companies, said Sucharita Mulpuru, a retail analyst at Forrester. Those doing well, she said, generally have less than $100,000 in revenue and fewer than 10 employees. Gap, Nordstrom, J. C. Penney and GameStop, on the other hand, have all shut down Facebook stores in the last 12 months, mostly, Ms. Mulpuru said, because consumers are accustomed to the richer experience on retailing Web sites.

But Facebook can present challenges to businesses of all sizes. Some consumers do not feel safe buying directly from a Facebook storefront, said Krista Garcia, a social commerce analyst with a market research firm, eMarketer. And business owners should be aware that they do not own their Facebook pages — Facebook does, and it can change the appearance and rules whenever it wants.

GETTING STARTED It’s easy for a small business to open a Facebook storefront by creating a page in the business’s name, loading photos of the product and adding shopping functions. Because Facebook storefronts can look generic, small businesses have to find ways to differentiate themselves, said Jay Bean, chief executive of an online marketing firm, OrangeSoda.

Customizing a page is done by installing applications that enable customers to do things like shop, enter contests or see a menu. Apps are available from Facebook and outside vendors, or they can be custom-developed.

Payvment’s tools let businesses create a storefront with a shopping cart and promotions like discounts and coupons.

USE YOUR PERSONALITY Unlike larger businesses, small businesses can build on their personal relationships to end users, said Wendy Tan-White, chief executive of Moonfruit, which builds and supports e-commerce Web sites. She advises using a cover image for a business’s page that relates not only to the product or service but to customers, too.

On the Got What It Cakes storefront, for example, the cover photo shows the owner, Ms. Miller, in her home, with baby photos on the wall behind her and several cakes scattered about the sitting room; the smaller-profile photo is the company logo.

Many of Ms. Miller’s customers are busy mothers like her, and she communicates frequently with them on Facebook. “I am a local, one-person business but I have 5,000 fans,” she said.

Ms. Miller gives the kinds of tips her customers might get from a friend, like what to do with leftover chocolate cake batter: “Put some butter on your griddle and make pancakes with it.”