Will Social Shopping Take Root With the iPhone 4?

With the advent of the iPhone 4's FaceTime, will the social shopping movement finally take hold?

For many years, companies have created technologies to allow “social” or “group” shopping experiences. Some technologies allow users to browse websites together online (from geographic distances), chat with others who are browsing the same Web page as they are, or easily share products with friends. In my opinion, none of these technologies (designed to mimic shopping with a friend at a store) really took off the way they were intended. Online shopping still tends to be a solo venture. Shopping offline (at a real store), however, continues to be a group activity. The advent of multimedia messaging service (MMS) and e-mail on phones has enabled customers to quickly e-mail their friends or text them photos of products. Visual recognition software has allowed potential customers to take photos of products and see competitive prices via apps from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

With the iPhone 4, another advancement is potentially being made. As I write this, we’re still a day away from the launch of the iPhone 4. But, as you read this, all those who got an iPhone 4 on the first day of its launch will already be experts in its new features. The feature that intrigues me the most is FaceTime. For those living under a rock, this is what Apple calls its video messaging system. More important than the application they supply with the iPhone is the API (define) into this system Apple is allowing developers to use. The API means that any application written for the iPhone 4 can take advantage of FaceTime and use it in a proprietary manner.

What does this mean for social shopping? While I haven’t dug down into the detailed API yet, here are some initial thoughts on how retailers can harness this technology to really assist their customers. (Note: while FaceTime currently requires Wi-Fi to work, this will clearly change once AT&T cleans up its act.)

Instead of texting a photo of a product to your friend while shopping, you can open up that store’s application (or a third-party application) and start a video chat. Your friend can see you in the outfit, see how the outfit “moves,” and give you instant feedback on it. Using visual recognition, the application automatically recognizes the items you’re wearing and puts them in your cart or wishlist. It also sends real-time information to your friend about the products and their prices, and lets your friend add them to her cart as well. Using augmented reality, your friend (and you) might see the live stream of you wearing the outfit, along with a visual overlay of product options such as alternate colors or “goes with” recommendations. Your friend can then recommend you try the top in the beige instead of red – when you hadn’t realized it came in other colors.

Depending on how open the FaceTime API really is, applications can not only harness video chat from within itself, but they can start to add product intelligence using visual recognition and augmented reality, as described above. It’s too early to tell if Apple’s API will allow this kind of enrichment to its video technology. But, if it does, the iPhone could become a very interesting stepping stone in the social shopping movement – a movement that has failed to take hold, in my opinion, in the last 10 years of its development.

If it weren’t for the fact that people are currently using other phone-enabled technologies (MMS, e-mail attachments, on-board cameras) to do this exact thing, I wouldn’t even spend a moment to think of the relevancy of social shopping. But since people are finding ways to connect in this manner, using tools that weren’t really intended for this purpose, it seems clear that a technology built for this purpose could easily take root. Perhaps it isn’t a specific retailer who needs to create this application, but an enterprising third party. If only I had the time…

Questions, thoughts, comments? Leave it below!

Until next time…


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