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27 March 2024 / Opinion

Shared Online Shopping: The Power of Shop with Friends and Virtual Communities

Mitchel White / Senior Strategist

Like most verticals, e-commerce is evolving quickly, the stakes are high, and the challenges are vast.  

Returns rates are hitting ever higher levels each year with a 26% increase reported in the UK between 2021 – 2022. Clothing, shoes, and accessories brands are feeling the impact of returns the most with brands like Next and ASOS starting to charge for returning product, to curb the huge costs across supply chain and logistics caused by returns. 

On top of rising returns rates, Amazon continues to dominate market share, adding pressure to already stretched trading and marketing teams to innovate and meet demands of growth targets from boards and shareholders. Combine this with changing demographic spending shifts and consumer expectations driven by Gen Z audiences, brands are expected to redefine the digital shopping experience, embedding social principles into ecommerce. 

So, what’s the answer to these challenges? 

Could the rise of digital communities help to solve them? 

Whilst ecommerce has a long way to go to become a social, hang out with your friend’s activity like offline shopping of days gone by, virtual social shopping is becoming possible within Web3 environments and by borrowing from the social networking playbook. 


The rise of digital communities 

Platforms such as Discord could play an increasingly important role in helping ecommerce brands embrace peer-to-peer communities where shopping and brand interactions become more personal. The platform facilitates voice, video, and text conversations among friends, as well as offering access to servers where expansive gaming communities convene. 

Ecommerce brands are already starting to test the waters with digital community building. The Indonesian acne-friendly cosmetics brand Mad for Makeup, for example, hosts the Rebel Secret Society on Discord. The brand has created a safe, protected space for young Gen Z audiences to share their experiences of living with acne whilst helping create space for peer-to-peer recommendation of Mad for Makeup products at the same time. 

The shift towards more intimate brand engagement to niche communities, shows a clear move by the ecommerce sector from the impersonal nature of ecommerce of years gone by. 


Squad shopping 

Gen Zalpha (yes, it’s a thing) are driving the concept of squad shopping. The trend where social support, friends’ advice, and wish-list sharing are embedded within the shopping experience is something brands will need to start thinking about. 

At the start of 2024, Walmart launched its Shop with Friends tool in Beta, allowing customers to try on and share outfits with their friends. The tool integrates AR with virtual try on and social feedback using social integration via its Ask a Friend button, friends can even “heart” their favourite options from multiple outfits. The tool has huge benefits to Walmart with the potential to reduce return rates and decision-making friction, whilst making the shopping experience more enjoyable. A win win, for everyone. 

Amazon is jumping on the ask a friend train too, with its Consult A Friend feature. Launched on its shopping app in October 2023, you can ask friends opinions whilst shopping. Friends can be sent a link via platforms such as WhatsApp and Instagram and can leave comments and emoji reactions.  

Amazon's "Consult-a-Friend" and Walmart’s "Shop with Friends" tools are just a couple of examples of how brands are investing in shop with friends as a new concept. By tapping into nostalgic teen shopping trip themes in a digital first way, brands can create a more engaging shopping experience whilst embedding digital retail as a more social activity and part of everyday lives. 


Wish list sharing 

Beyond fashion, wish list sharing platforms such as L’Occitane’s Christmas brandiverse, have shown the power of digital community in online shopping. The platform allows signed up users to share their gift wish lists via personalised digital postcards, combined with shopping links and discount vouchers for the sender and recipient – the platform creates a way to turn shopping into a more interactive experience, using shareable wish lists as a tool to generate value for the shopper and the brand. 


The future 

The “latest shiny thing” comes around a lot, especially in ecommerce – but shop with friends and the evolution of digital communities is a development here to stay, with benefits for brands and consumers, it’s something all ecommerce brands should be building into their 2024 strategies. 

By creating more personal and social-first shopping experience, you’re not only addressing the practical challenges of high return rates and competitor pressures, but you’re also making shopping with your brand a much more engaging and enjoyable experience – setting your customer experience apart. 

A lot of the ideas covered here are in their infancy and, as we continue to see the transformation of digital experiences develop in ecommerce, we will likely see more advanced versions of Shop with Friends and new methods of creating peer-to-peer connectivity. But one thing will remain; a more social, consumer led approach to ecommerce.