Beware The Tales Of The Social Commerce Loch Ness Monster

In my ongoing-yet-fruitless quest to find the great social commerce success story, I’ll talk to anyone who will talk to me  about the topic.  I talked this week to a "venture capitalist" who shall remain nameless, and we had the following conversation:

VC: I’ve seen social commerce success. I have. I’ve seen commerce success on Facebook.

Me: Really? Are you referring to maybe one of the marketplaces on Facebook? Or ShopSocially?

VC: No, no one’s heard of this company. No one in the Valley has heard of this company. Only I know about this company.

Me: And this is a business that can scale?

VC: It’s sooooo scalable.  I’ve seen it scale. 

Me:  Really?

VC: They make millions and millions of dollars. I’ve seen it. 

Me: Can you tell me who you’re talking about?

VC: I . . . I’m not at liberty to say the name. They want to stay under the radar. They don’t want anyone to know about their secret sauce. 

Me: Really?  They’ve discovered something that no one, not Silicon Valley, not Facebook’s army of developers, not any retailer in the world has yet to discover?

VC: Hey, I don’t need YOU to believe me! I’m happy to just make my money. 

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The Mobile Commerce Train: Coming But Not Here Yet

After social commerce, mobile commerce is the most heavily debated topic-du-jour among retailers these days. One thing that both social and mobile commerce have in common is that they are both small. Teeny in fact. Forrester’s Mobile Commerce Forecast, 2011 To 2016, which launched today, shows that retailers can expect 2% of their online web sales (yes, I said web sales which means a minuscule percent of overall retail) to be transacted through mobile devices in 2011.  While we also expect mobile commerce sales to grow 40% each year for the next five years, we’re still talking small numbers overall (7% of web sales penetration by 2016).  Why so small you may ask.  After all, aren’t smartphones changing the way we consume web content?  Some things to consider:

  • Tablets. We don’t include tablet shopping in our definition of mobile shopping, but the creation (and subsequent explosion in sales) of this device is probably the single biggest inhibitor to the growth of “mobile commerce.”  Data that we gathered with Bizrate Insights (to be released separately and soon) indicates that most tablet owners also own smartphones, and many of those people naturally prefer to shop on the device that has the larger screen when given the choice.
  • Shopping never leads web behavior. In any list of activities that people do on the Internet, shopping nearly always ranks below things like “reading news” or “using social networks.” Even those activities are not universal among the smartphone set, so it would be premature to expect that shopping would rank high on the list (which it, of course, doesn’t). 
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An Open Letter To Anyone Planning To Buy Into Groupon’s IPO

Dear Potential Investor,

I have mixed feelings about the Groupon IPO. On one hand, we’ve just come out of a horrible economic period where there was a real fear of wealth destruction. But now just a few months after the near-collapse of our financial institutions, we actually have an extraordinary opportunity for wealth creation — how great is that! On the other hand, there is no rational math that could possibly get anyone to the valuation Groupon thinks it deserves. Yes, Groupon grew from $30 million in sales to more than $700 million between 2009 and 2010, but most of that growth was artificial. (The lack of profitability is another issue, but let's not even go there.) Here’s why:

  • $265 million came from its international markets, which were acquisitions.
  • It spent a quarter-billion dollars (!) on marketing. To put that into context, the average large eCommerce retailer spends $11 million on interactive marketing. Back of the envelope calculations from the SEC filing get us to $31 spent to acquire a customer, who then probably spends a little more than that on Groupon. That means it spent about $250 million to make another $300 million.
  • It launched in more than 100 new markets in 2010. I’ll conjecture that in any market in America, you can sell $500,000 of half-off manicures and teeth whitening procedures in a year just by hanging a shingle. That gets us to another $50 million in revenue. 
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