Facebook wants you to shop through its Messenger app

Facebook announced the next step for its Messenger app last week, aiming to turn shopping and customer service into a text-driven experience. But will shoppers and retailers jump on board? 

Eric Risberg/AP/File
Mark Zuckerberg talks about Messenger app during the Facebook F8 Developer Conference in San Francisco. Facebook is trying to mold its Messenger app into a more versatile communications channel as smartphones create new ways for people to connect with friends and businesses beyond the walls of the company's ubiquitous social network.

Will consumers "like" the mix of retail and Facebook that's slated to arrive via a new service called Businesses on Messenger?

Facebook announced this planned next step for the Messenger app Wednesday at its F8 conference. In essence, it turns shopping and customer service into a text-driven experience through the social network's messaging function. When placing an order through a retailer that uses BoM, a shopper should receive confirmation and order updates in a single message thread in the app, rather than receiving multiple separate emails. Think of it like an archived timeline of every step in the process, including discussions with customer service reps.

Thus the static online purchase procedure — almost universally a three-step process of select, check out, and pay — now promises to evolve into a conversation. Just as with any chat among Facebook friends, the back-and-forth can resume at a later time. But in a retail setting, this means paving the way for future purchases.

Will Enough Stores Join the Program?

Still, huge questions remain for Facebook and the shoppers it hopes to reel in via the new service. To begin with, there are only two retailers on board so far, though it's too soon to tell how much momentum Businesses on Messenger stands to build among the retail community. Even in the B2B space between Facebook and future clients, it often takes time for a new service to "go viral."

At launch, two retail operations had signed on as — to borrow a phrase form the tech world — early adopters. (Curiously, Facebook's own press seems underwhelming and flat, as they pitch it this way: "Businesses on Messenger will initially launch with a couple of partners.")

At least one of those businesses seems like an odd choices. The clothing and apparel site Zulily is known for being cumbersome with shipping — with some items taking weeks to arrive. (Apparel retailer Everlane is also signed up for the service.) Messenger won't necessarily clean up that act, in which case the experience could be less than optimal, giving a black eye to Facebook just as the new service gets off the ground. Although BoM could potentially improve customer service, it won't necessarily which means this could become just another portal for bad consumer experiences.

But even if shoppers turn away in droves, it's safe to say Facebook could win big in this space — at least before other digital giants try to copy their simple formula. For starters, Facebook Messenger boasts a 600-million-person install base. And as Fast Company reports, "[That] has the sort of scale to make the idea very big, very fast." Plus, Facebook is experimenting with "buy" buttons in user feeds, so retailers might be motivated to participate with BoM as well. (That said, we're somewhat doubtful that the likes of Amazon will join in.)

Privacy, Convenience Concerns for Consumers

On the consumer end, any new technology raises a host of questions, starting with "Can I trust this?" That's an excellent query, given Facebook's past fumbles with privacy settings and the ever-present temptation to collect big data via Messenger and market it back to retailers.

Shoppers may also be weary of having to deal with another technology wrinkle in what used to be a smooth, simple process. For starters, users may shy away given that Facebook has now unleashed 40 new apps as part of Messenger. For those weary of information overload, outright dismissal before they even get on remains a distinct possibility. Add that to the potentially sloppy redundancies between the Messenger service and store apps already in a smartphone, and consumers may remain content to stick with what they know.

There are potential advantages, too. BoM could offer push notifications and alerts about the status of your orders, eliminating the need for downloading more store apps for every order you place. If those notifications get annoying, chances are you will be able to turn them off in most cases.

Ultimately, that huge cross section of Facebook fans and frequent shoppers will judge the system's success. Either way, you can count on raves or gripes on status updates all across the virtual marketplace.

Lou Carlozo is a contributor for DealNews, where this article first appeared.

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