Bridget Quinn Stickline checks a Twitter message as she walks… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
When Walmart wanted to get the word out that it had received a huge shipment of the most sought-after toy just in time for the year-end shopping season, the retailer turned to its more than 400,000 Facebook friends first.
Through teaser messages on its Facebook page, followers were asked to guess the mystery product that would soon be stocked on shelves. When Walmart revealed that the toy was the robotic hamster Zhu Zhu pets, it posted up-to-date messages and videos on when the toy would reach stores.
Retailers, once timid users of social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter, have become more engaged in the past year as the sites gain popularity among consumers.
"I think retailers dipped their toe in the water" in 2008 "and saw some success and now they're going crazy with it," said Ryan Goff, vice president and word of mouth/social media strategy director for MGH, an Owings Mills advertising firm.
Jennifer Rosen, a 31-year-old attorney from Pikesville, uses social media to follow boutiques such as Wee Chic children's store at Green Spring Station, Radcliffe Jewelers and La Papillon spa in Timonium.
Rosen, who has a 16-month-old daughter, has asked the owner of Wee Chic to put outfits on hold that she has seen posted on the store's Facebook page. She'll then take them home for her daughter to try on. Rosen has little oral communication with the owner.
"It's convenient for me because I'm a working parent and I can get shopping done while she is sleeping," said Rosen. "It really has made shopping so much easier."
Retailers are using social media to pitch sales, get feedback and create more intimate relationships with their customers. Such usage was more pronounced during the holiday season, but has become a permanent element of marketing and customer service strategies.
"Retailers go the way of their consumers and consumers are using social media more," said Mike Gatti of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, a division of the National Retail Federation. "It's really allowing them to create a two-way street of communication with consumers and build a better relationship with them."
Gatti's group doesn't track how many retailers use social media but said that just about every major retailer has a presence.
Along with Facebook, Walmart uses Twitter to promote bargains. It has relationships with bloggers who write about the retailer's deals, and posts its own "how-to" videos on YouTube. Its Facebook page even had a spot where consumers could organize their holiday shopping lists.
Best Buy has created a Twitter page called Twelpforce where consumers can get tech advice, make complaints and get ideas on what products to buy. Kodak's Facebook page allows customers to create albums and share pictures. Target promotes daily deals on Twitter and Facebook and has a dedicated page on YouTube.
"It's a national trend that more and more people are going online and using these forums," said Sarah Boehle, a Target spokeswoman. "Our guests are online and they expect us to be online. We use it as a way to engage with our shoppers."
Amanda Kashner, 29, says it's convenient to look for deals on Facebook because she uses the site daily to chat with friends. She's more apt to shop if there is a sale, and interacting with retailers via Facebook makes her feel in tune with them. "You can always send them a message on their wall and most of the time they'll respond," said the medical billing consultant.
Promotions sent by mobile phone are also becoming popular, Gatti said.
Some retailers are testing applications in which they use global positioning systems to tell when a customer is in one of their stores and immediately send a coupon. On the social media site groupon.com, retailers offer daily specials, but only honor them if a certain amount of people sign up.
Consumers aren't just using social media to find out about the latest bargains. They're reading product reviews and even networking on other topics.
Most consumers turning to social media during the holiday season wanted to find out what other shoppers thought about products, according to a survey by comScore, a Virginia company that tracks e-commerce usage and sales. About 28 percent of shoppers used social media sites to help with gift choices, according to the survey, which looked at one week in December.
The Facebook page for Wee Chic has become a networking tool for moms.
Friends of the store give each other advice on everything from soothing a crying baby to finding a good pediatrician. If a mother comes in with a question that owner Bridget Quinn Stickline can't answer, she'll put a query on Facebook.
Stickline turned to Facebook before she opened the business, asking people what they wanted in a children's store. The store's site now has 324 friends, and she often offers deals to them before the public.
"We give our Facebook group preferential treatment," she said. "You're in the inner circle; you just have to tell us who you are."