Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham 7 September 2015

The Web Changed. We Changed. So why Are Retailers Stuck Back In 2003?

Almost twelve years after you probably first heard the words ‘Web 2.0', why is it that retailers are still selling like it is 2003?

Time for a little history lesson.

If you are old enough (Millennials excused here!) to remember the first retail websites in the mid ‘90s, they were pretty boring, basically online versions of print brochures that took ages to download on your dial-up modem. It wasn’t until companies like Amazon, eBay and Pegasus realised the potential to disintermediate traditional retail, that ecommerce was born. But that didn’t bring much interaction beyond ‘people who bought this also bought that’.

Neither did ‘Web 2.0’, a term Tim O’Reilly popularised in 2004, make ecommerce ‘social’, rather it just coined a term for a series of things that made the web more ‘social’ like blogs, wikis and video sharing.

Actually two further developments had more impact. The first was the explosion of broadband access and speeds after the turn of the century, and the second was the launch of the leading social networks after 2003, and more particularly their exponential growth after 2005/6, which changed the way we interacted online.

Now that everyone could access the Internet both at work and at home, and with so many potential customers spending lots of time on social and freely giving valuable personal information, the ability to sell through these channels seemed to be the new nirvana of marketing. This has only been supercharged and amplified by the rise of the smartphone and 3G and now 4G networks.

But almost twelve years after you probably first heard the words ‘Web 2.0’, why is it that retailers are still selling like it is 2003?


As we now spend perhaps 80% of our time online outside of work on social, whether on Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, SMS or any other connected ‘social’ activity, and we carry a powerful mini-computer around in our pockets all day and leave it by the bed side at night it is clear that social pervades almost everything we do on the Internet.

But why is it that online retailers are still selling to us ‘one to one’? Of course, they have got better at personalisation, the offers might be better targeted based on our browsing and past purchase history and if we log in they will address us by our name. That is a huge improvement on showing a pink or a blue background based on whether our cookies suggested we were female or male. But essentially, most retailers still seek to sell to each of us individually rather than seeking to tap the power of the groups and tribes we belong to. We will be sold to, upsold to, retargeted to, sent newsletters, asked to like something and maybe even asked to share all on a ’one to one’ basis. But in a world where we are all natively social online and on our mobile phones, why are retailers not incorporating social into every touch point with a customer or potential customer?

Social Is More Than An Opportunity To Buy More Ads!

Clearly, the aggressive monetisation policies adopted by networks like Facebook and being increasingly adopted by Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter have strangled organic social and so it is no longer as easy as it was to engage with fans and followers by posting on a Facebook page or tweeting. Nevertheless, too many retailers just view social as nothing more than an opportunity to buy more banner ads, as if social networks were only another Ad Network but with greater reach and better targeting data. It is as if that old 2003 ’banner ad buying mentality’ is encrusted so deep that they can’t see social as anything else.

And sponsored posts and tweets on Facebook or Twitter do not make ecommerce more social; it is just old fashioned ‘interruption advertising on a social network’. Similarly,
 adding ‘buy buttons’ to ads on a social network is only adding ‘one to one’ commerce to interruption advertising. It is not really changing anything.

Blame The Gurus!

To explain why retail is so stuck in the past you have to look no further than the self-appointed social media gurus. You know the ones who got a Twitter account and a blog early on and use this as their justification for being the Oracle on ’all things social’. Despite the fact that they last had a proper job sometime in early 2006 when, after only a couple of years on a graduate intake scheme, they decided early morning starts weren’t their ‘thing’ and set up their consulting business from home. Usually based somewhere in the Mid-West, they will charge retailers a fortune to speak at conferences where they tell anyone who will listen that ‘you must not market or sell on social’ and that ‘social is where people come to hang out with their friends and brand messages are unwelcome’.

OK. OK. That’s just a light-hearted caricature. But the point is that people who never had much corporate - let alone any retail - experience are advising retailers on how to do social. No wonder they advise that all you should do is spend all day on Twitter pretending to be a ‘real friend’ to your followers and responding to every tweet within seconds to keep the pretence alive. Despite the fact that no-one with a real job can spend that much of their working day on Twitter!  It is precisely this kind of blinkered thinking that’s holding retailers back from really enlisting the power of social to sell not just to customers but to the friends, family and colleagues of those customers. 

And don’t expect the social networks to try and change your thinking when they are making so much money selling you banner ads and sponsored videos and posts.

Firstly, retailers need to realise that no-one who friends your business on Facebook or follows it on Twitter thinks of you as anything more or anything less than a brand or a retailer. The product or service you provide is the basis for the relationship and you have legitimacy to talk about your brand and the solution you provide. 

Retailers can and should sell through social. In fact, social should be incorporated into all of their selling. It just has to be done in a smart and appropriate way.


Thankfully, not all retailers have their heads stuck in the sand. Amara, which houses over 3,000 of the world’s most luxurious lifestyle brands, is a great example of a retailer that has incorporated social across its online business. Each customer who refers a friend or family member will get £25 for each purchase they make and the new customer will get 20% off their first purchase. Customers who bring in 5 new purchasers get an LSA champagne bucket worth £56 and the top referrer at the end of the month wins an overnight stay for two at Raymond Blanc’s two-Michellin starred Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons with a world-famous seven course tasting menu and places on the Raymond Blanc Cookery School half day course.

In this way, Amara is not selling one-to-one but viewing each sale as an opportunity to sell not just to that customer but to their friends and family - using the full force of personal recommendations powered by the Buyapowa social selling tools. It does this by combining three key concepts of personal rewards, gamification and communal targets to enable one-to-many and not just one-to-one sharing.

When a leading luxury retailer can do this, why not your business?

Let’s talk about how we can help get your marketing up-to-date

If you enjoyed our, admittedly lighthearted, take on retail marketing today and you want to trade in your velour sweatsuits, big hoop earings and a scratched collection of Cristina Aguilera and 50 Cent CDs (yes you listened to music on CDs back then!) for something more appropriate for 2015 and beyond, then you know where you can find us.

Original Article


Find out more on the future of Business at our DLUK - Trends Briefing on the 24th September 2015


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