Is Instagram Keeping You From Discovering Amazing Designers?

Via @lisasaysgah.
About six months ago, Lisa Williams of Lisa Says Gah, a San Francisco-based online women’s clothing store, signed up for the third-party shopping app Have2Have.It in hopes of streamlining the shopping experience for her customers. And why not? She had over 40,000 followers on Instagram, her stock is limited, and items often sold out quickly. There had to be a better way than posting “link in profile” to sell clothing through the social-media site.

Williams was skeptical. First, Have2Have.It charged a fee. (Soldsie, the company that created HaveToHave.It, charges shop owners $49 a month with a 5.9% transaction fee, according to its website.) Secondly, customers would have to click a few times to get to the product. But Instagram didn’t have its own click-to-buy option — at least not one she knew of at the time. So she signed up for a free trial — and it worked. In fact, it worked well: Now, 50% of her traffic comes via Have2Have.It.

Since 2015, when Instagram rolled out its “Shop Now” software, the app has focused on recruiting businesses. It makes sense that the photo-app would turn in that direction; it has 500 million users, and 50% of those follow business accounts. 75% of users say after seeing an Instagram post, they're more likely to visit a website or shop or tell a friend. Just over a month ago, Instagram for Business was launched; like Facebook Insights, the program allows companies to track customer information within the app.

“Businesses have always been an important part of our community and the majority of Instagram's 200,000 advertisers are small businesses,” an Instagram spokesperson told Refinery29. “Helping them be successful on the platform is a priority for us.”

Yet, for all of its efforts, Instagram seems to be facing an uphill battle with small business owners. Rather than turning to the app for help promoting their companies, many shop owners have signed up for third-party shopping apps like Have2Have.It. (Third-party apps aren’t direct links — an Instagram post takes you to a secondary page. That secondary page links you to the shop owner’s website.) Probably the largest and most successful of the third-party shopping apps is RewardStyle’s LikeToKnow.It, which Vogue uses as its shopping platform.

In 2014, LikeToKnow.It hit the big time, The Wall Street Journal reported; retail partners banked millions of dollars in sales. Currently, LikeToKnow.It is working with 9,000 bloggers, magazines, and over 4,000 retailers, including Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, and Net-A-Porter. Plus, it has a very exclusive customer base, Amber Venz Box, RewardStyle’s cofounder and president, told the WSJ — it only accepts 10% of applicants. Meaning: A lot of small businesses don't make the cut.

Though the shop owners I spoke with were open to using some of Instagram’s new tools, they weren’t exactly jazzed. Williams, for example, saw Instagram’s sponsored post option, but she didn’t love how much it felt like an advertisement.

“I’ve seen Cult Gaia ads 85 times in a week, because I engaged with it at some point. It was a ‘Shop Now’ sponsored link. Now, I’ve seen the same image over and over,” she says. The Instagram ad, she adds, felt forced. So for now, she’s hesitant. “I feel like Have2Have.It is a little bit more organic and less in your face than a sponsored ad,” she says.

Other business owners, however, are shirking Instagram’s advertising efforts altogether. Ft. Lonesome, a self-described “thread-based storytelling” company out of Texas that custom-stitches denim and other fabrics (and recently partnered up with Madewell) held an Instagram “auction” as recently as June to sell two limited-edition embroidered sunset and moonrise denim jackets. Just a few weeks ago, it was selling landscape patches through the app. Four were available — if you wanted one, you had to comment on the post with your email address.

Beverley Ragon, co-owner of Fox & Fawn, a vintage clothing store with two Brooklyn locations, is also sticking to the old-fashioned methodology: To buy an item through her shop, you have to be “on file.” (To get on file, you call the store and give your credit card information.) If you want to purchase something, you comment “Ring me up,” and cross your fingers you’re the first to do so.

Ragon, however, says she’s content with her company's current shopping system and that her main concern regarding Instagram is the app's change from a chronological feed to an algorithm-based one. (The new algorithm change means you’re not going to see your feed in the order it was posted by people you follow. You’ll see it based on Instagram’s own formulation.)

“The disruption of the chronological feed definitely makes us wary as to what other future changes they’ll make to further monetize the app,” she says. “Aside from the obvious, which would be switching the feeds back to chronological or giving deals on sponsored content, I think there's nothing Instagram can specifically do to help smaller stores. We took a purely visual platform and turned it into a marketplace. It was never intended as that, but it gives us so much freedom.”

For Sara Villard, owner of Worship, a vintage clothing store with one location in Brooklyn and one in Los Angeles, Instagram sales aren’t a huge percentage of business. Instead, Villard sees her visual presence on the app as more of a marketing tool. “It makes people want to come into the store to look at the item. And then they shop and it helps us promo more than anything,” she says. “Especially on a really hot day, when people aren’t really shopping for clothes, or in the middle of winter when you can still make a couple of hundred bucks, it’s a valuable tool.”

Other shop owners see it as a case of if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. One shop owner, who holds Sunday shopping auctions for one-of-a-kind items through her Instagram “shop,” declined to be interviewed for this article. Why? She didn’t want to disrupt what is already a successful sales model.

So who is advertising with Instagram’s sponsored posts? I searched through the app regularly over the course of a week and found mostly larger companies, like Talenti gelato, Pure Leaf Iced Tea, Magnum Ice Cream, and Target. In other words, in my very, very tiny research model, it appears to be places with large advertising budgets. If the new algorithm is based on what Instagram thinks you want to see and its priority is to push brands paying for “sponsored” posts, some of your favorite artists and quirky shop owners will most likely become buried in your feed. This means there’s a great possibility that your own feed will push you to the same fast-fashion retailers that everyone else sees, because they have more money to spend. With an app that's so heavily utilized for discovery, especially when it comes to clothing and accessory labels and designers, that might mean you're not being exposed to a majority of the creators and innovators both promoting and selling through Instagram.

I spoke to California-based artist Lauren Williams, of Boho by Lauren, about this issue. Williams makes stunning hand-dyed tapestries and I started following last year when I became obsessed with not just the finished work, but her process. Back in February, Williams bypassed her Etsy shop to sell items straight through Instagram. She announced that she had eight pieces available starting at 3 p.m. and tagged it #instasale. Willams’ tapestries aren’t cheap; they sell for around $400 to $500 (or more). Yet, in a few hours, her stock was wiped. In other words, she killed it.

Williams told me that she didn’t really need to advertise; she was just trying to keep up with her orders. However, if Instagram's advertising algorithm continues to play out, will it affect (or rather, hurt) the small businesses that currently use the app as their main source of exposure and income? And for consumers, will it hinder how we're able to find the brands we support; the indie labels making products you actually can't find anywhere else? If we lose our sense of discovery through Instagram, where will we all go?
Advertisement

More from Shopping

You never want something until you can't have it. So, each week in The Sell-Out, we're getting the scoop from your favorite retailers on what's selling ...
Some trends are easy to dive into head-first: Give us all the athleisure in the world, and we're definitely not complaining. Because no matter how many ...
We first heard about Nike's plans to really, truly make the self-lacing sneakers from Back to the Future Part II a reality back in March, after the ...
Flex dancing, a dance form characterized by rhythmic waving, gliding, and contorting of the body, is often thought of as a man’s world. But there are a few...
This story was originally published on October 8, 2015. You can expect to see a certain set of characters at every Halloween party. Cher Horowitz is in ...
Kendall Jenner recently admitted that she's always either braless or in a bralette, and she's not the only one. Tons of women (regardless of chest size) ...
Velvet in fall is like florals in spring; we've seen it before, and chances are high that we'll see it again every single year hereafter. That being said, ...
(Paid Content) Classic white Keds have been in my shoe rotation since I was a wee one. As a picky shopper early on, this simple and economical option was ...
Let's face it: When it comes to buying shoes, we (unfortunately) can't purchase the entire store in one go (but if you can and you got that $$$, shoutout ...
The hunt for good-looking, affordable clothing (and accessories) can have you feeling like you're about to rip your hair out. Sure, you might happen across...
Get the skinny on your skivvies, right this way
People travel near and far to shop in New York City. And, why wouldn't they? It's practically the shopping mecca of North America. There are flagship ...
Butts: We all have them, and lately they've become a hot topic of conversation. Here at R29 HQ, we cherish derrieres of all shapes and sizes — and, we're ...
Once tights season rolls around in just a few short weeks, discussions about the quest for the perfect pair (affordable, comfortable, and rip-resistant, ...