Instagram is finally going to make it easier to shop for the products you see in your feed

The knock on traditional e-commerce sites has long been that they take the serendipity out of shopping — that is, they’re good for transacting when you know what you want, but not so good when you don’t.

On Tuesday, Instagram will become the latest internet company to try to capitalize on this perceived flaw — and perhaps the only real weakness in Amazon’s core business. The Facebook-owned photo-sharing app introduced a series of new features designed to help people identify, and eventually purchase, products they may come across in photos from brands in their feeds.

Like Pinterest, Instagram is trying to sell the idea that its app is a place for “discovering” goods. And it says it wants to remove some of the hurdles between the so-called moment of discovery and a purchase.

“We’ve seen pretty good progress in mobile on making purchases easier,” said Vishal Shah, Instagram’s head of product management for monetization. “But these two things — discovery and the actual purchase — are just not well-connected like happens in physical stores.”

The new shopping features don’t let you make an actual purchase inside of the Instagram app. Instead, select partners can include a “Tap to view products” icon in the lower corner of photos. Tapping on the icon brings up tags next to each product listing the item’s name and price. Another tap loads a product page inside of Instagram with more information.

The list of 20-something partners includes names like Abercrombie, Warby Parker, Kate Spade and Macy’s.

But when it comes time to complete a purchase, Instagram will send people to the purchase page on a retailer’s mobile website or app. Initially, at least, it seems that Instagram is trying to straddle the line between wringing more value out of its network for brands and retailers and overtly commercializing your feed. Still, re-directing a person to another site to complete a purchase — especially on a mobile phone where conversion rates are already low — is a surprising decision.

“We want to give people tools to make it as easy as possible, but not be in your face,” Shah said.

Up till now, brands big and small have relied on what were effectively hacks to sell products that appear in their Instagram photos. Some would place links to products in their Instagram bios and point followers to the information in the photo caption. Others have used hashtags to highlight and organize images that include items that can be found for sale on their own shopping sites.

For now, no money is changing hands between Instagram and the retailers and brands taking part in the shopping test. So that means that Instagram isn’t taking a cut when someone makes a purchase after discovering an item in the app.

Shah also said that the shopping features won’t be included in Instagram ads (for now). But you better believe that Instagram imagines that commerce will morph into a big business down the line, either via ads or some type of cut of sales.

Either way, these moves have been a long time coming for an industry that has been talking about this possibility for years. In the meantime, other social networks and photo-focused sites have tried to take advantage of the perceived discovery commerce opportunity with varying degrees of ... well, not really success.

Both Twitter and Facebook introduced “Buy” buttons to allow purchases of some products that people find in their apps, only to later give up on the initiatives. Pinterest’s e-commerce initiative began with a slow holiday season last year, but the company has since added a dedicated shopping section to the app, and other features that indicate it is sticking with the new business idea.

The test is only rolling out to a small group of iOS users in the U.S. to start.


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