Bright cheery local toy stores delight children, and can overwhelm even the most child-like adults. Sure, we can play with the train set, ride a Rody, or test out the Nano Hexbug track alongside the kids. But we're often there for other reasons. For example, the dreaded buying of gifts.
Gift giving itself isn't the problem. Who doesn't enjoy that? But shopping for a child you don't know that well? Whew! Might as well stomp on my toe and run. It usually hurts. Unless there's the primary color equivalent of a wedding registry, figuring out what to buy can be daunting. There you are. Perhaps with a child (who has his or her reflections on what to get for that friend). And all that cool stuff.
Imagine this scene instead. Mom (Jennifer), goes into her town's equivalent to F.A.O. Schwarz (Pufferbellies ), with all it's "see it nowhere else within 100 miles/wish I were a toy buyer" wooden, recycled, and well-made plastic toys, in search of a birthday gift for a soon-to-be 3-year old (Zina). Jennifer fears her 6-year old will find something for herself too good to pass up and that together they'll be utterly lost on what to get the little birthday girl. Jennifer's heart stops racing frantically when she spots a display of toy unicorns, something she's certain the 3-year old would love ... But which one? There are three pastel wonders to choose from.
As she talks with her daughter, weighing the pros and cons of each, one of the owners of the store (Erin), says, "Is that for Zina?" Yes it is, why? "Well, you're not the first to think its perfect for her and we've already sold a few to other people for the party." She adds, "I've noticed her eyeing these little purses over here. They're less money and I know she'd really enjoy one."
Sale made. Gift given. Little girl ecstatic. Chalk up another wonderful transaction to social commerce.
Are you ready to make that sale? At this week's Rise of Social Commerce event, organizations as diverse as Wet Seal , Helzberg Diamonds , Newell Rubbermaid , Virgin Airlines , and IBM  are talking about their focus on relationship-building to create a new sort of buying experience.
Although historically many purchases have been made based on personal referrals, what's new is the way people are receiving testimonials, where they are seeking out advice, and how quickly they can proceed to check out.
Erin's recommendation to Jennifer for Zina's gift could have as easily been done over a twitter  exchange, on the store's Facebook  page, or even on the store's Web site. Beside a photo of the miniature purse could have been matching accessories, a 5-star rating button from an overjoyed parent, a product recall notice, or a video showing the purse in action. Lora Cecere, in an upcoming industry report, points out that enlighten engagement includes the use of subject experts, video testimonials, the use of social communities to inform, and the syndication of reviews.
The good and the bad need not all be within the domain of the store either. A quick Googling of the product name might tell a different story. Scanning its barcode in the store could pull up user-reviews (and possibly better prices at online stores or in a neighboring town). The possibilities are endless, and they are there for the liking.
Susan Steele, Deloitte  National Talent Development Director, recently told an audience of people at the HR Technology Conference  in Chicago, about a recent social learning experience she'd had on the Lands' End  Web site while she was searching for a new down jacket. After reading the description, which sounded like exactly what she was looking for, she saw a handful of horrible customer reviews. Not just "the color wasn't as expected," rather "don't buy this" type comments. Susan didn't buy the coat based on council from complete strangers, yet her opinion of the Lands' End brand skyrocketed. She bought something different from them soon. Their willingness to house those negative reviews taught her something she needed to know. It also saved Lands' End a return and her the disappointment. It also made the great reviews on other coats, jeans, shirts, and sweaters seem that much more trustworthy.
These sorts of social exchanges reflect the way we've been learning from one another throughout life and now brings merchants into the equation. Both getting timely vital feedback on products, and earning trust from consumers who have more choices now than ever before.
Ultimately these exchanges are extensions (perhaps to others a second cousin) of social learning ... the lens through which I see so much opportunity for employers, employees, within retail or most any industry.
One question that remains open: Are leaders and their employees ready for this shift?
Kevin Barenblat, CEO and Co-Founder of social-marketer ContextOptional , told me about a national grocery chain beginning to train cashiers and deli-counter people to focus on relationships, not just food. The economic recession and competitive environment has exacerbated a tough industry with razor-thin margins, where brand loyalty matters less than location and value. Every dollar, every customer matters. This matters deeply to the corporate brand when a bad experience could be photographed, recorded, and texted within seconds. As uncomfortable as this may be, corporate would rather be notified if something's awry in a store. It gives them an opportunity to recover, to reach out to the customer, to make it right. Things happen, mistakes are made, and when they can use that insight to improve the store--and shopping experience--they increase the likelihood the customer will come back. By publicly responding on Twitter or Facebook, corporate leaders demonstrate to customers and employees they are listening and that they care. It's been very powerful to raise quality expectations for employees and engage the front line with the bottom line.
Rewiring organizations requires more than just training or someone to respond with a quick "thank you for your loyalty, we're working on it" on Twitter. Customer engagement needs modeling from every corner of the organization. If corporate executives don't believe in open leadership, if they want the front lines and the Web team to promote social relationship-oriented work, yet stick to their tired habits that treat their people like numbers or dirt, what will message will be heard and demonstrated? You can begin with the front-line, with your customers, the very people you rely on every day to make your business valuable, but you also then need to work your way up through the ranks. Distributed organization models may provide more surface area to those you serve, but even hierarchy can provide wirearchy . It's everyone's responsibility to change their practices.
Our ability to collectively share our stories is as old as humankind. Now they can be shared fast and with HD images, and they can sell products or stop a sale in its tracks. Social is more than a buzz phrase (even if I did predict the world itself will soon seem cliché ). It's a returning to, and extending and deepening, of our capacity as a species to be human. Technology no longer needs to get in the way. It can set free our experiences and help make sure together we are smarter.
Marcia Conner, partner with Altimeter Group , focuses on enterprise culture, collaboration, and learning. Her new book is The New Social Learning: A Guide to Transforming Organizations Through Social Media . Connect with her on Twitter @marciamarcia  and at www.marciaconner.com .
She will be speaking on rewiring the organization to benefit from social commerce at Altimeter's first conference, "The Rise of Social Commerce " taking place in Palo Alto on October 6th and 7th. Watch the event live or after the show on Ustream .