Awaiting the widespread adoption of mobile shopping is a little like waiting for Godot. You’re sure it’ll appear someday, but not so sure when or what it will look like when it does.
It’ll probably look something like secondhand fashion marketplace Poshmark, which hosts virtual "live" parties inside its iPhone and iPad apps each day and, as of this week, plans to introduce real-time curation to its platform.
Poshmark tackles problems that are familiar to the few pioneers making purchases using mobile devices: too often, they get pared down versions of retail or online store experiences, hard-to-see images, and questionably navigable interfaces.
It’s no wonder that, while millions of tablets and hundreds of millions of smartphones were sold globally last year, mobile accounts for just over 11% of all e-commerce transactions, which, in turn, represented only about 7% of all retail sales in 2011, according to findings from ABI Research and Forrester, respectively.
Poshmark takes advantage of precisely what mobile is good at—it’s persuaded its user base to browse, buy, and sell at the same time by offering virtual events called "posh parties" that encourage users to enter the app en masse during two-hour time slots.
"Real-time streaming of products can be as fun as watching a live TV show," says cofounder and CEO Manish Chandra, who also founded online shopping community Kaboodle.
Each party gets a theme. Visit the date night party for, say, two hours of constantly updated listings of blingy baubles and not-for-the-office heels, or hit up the Miu Miu, Burberry, Prada, Dior & Chanel party to snag items hailing strictly from those brands.
Where mobile has so often presented problems for shoppers, Poshmark has figured out how to make it an asset. That’s because much of the platform’s allure lies in seeing what will appear next and being able to do that from just about anywhere, whether it’s in front of the television or under the table during a boring dinner.
"It’s kind of like the Matrix, if you think about it. You here, but you’re really there," Chandra says of Poshmark users’ propensity for shopping while ostensibly doing other things.
The hope, of course, is that users will buy while they’re hanging out on the platform, uploading images enhanced with Instagram-like filters and chatting in the comments section. When that happens, Poshmark takes a 20% cut of the sale. And though only 8% of the platform’s users currently purchase items, Chandra says, users are deeply engaged. Comments on Poshmark listings are evidence. They run the gamut from "This looks adorable!" and "So cute!" to negotiations over price reductions, shipping for bundled items, and trades. What’s more, 40% of the app’s transactions take place during parties, even though they only account for a fraction of the time women could shop.
Starting with 40 to 50 items uploaded per party late last year, Poshmark has grown in popularity among secondhand fashion-seekers. Users now add an average of 13,000 and 15,000 items during each party and as many as 1,000 for designer-focused parties. While the company will not disclose user numbers, it reports a user base that doubles every six to eight weeks and an average of $3 to $4 million in merchandise added monthly.
And that’s the app’s ongoing challenge. Since debuting in December 2011 with $3.5 million in funding led by Mayfield Fund, the company has put its resources into building a scalable mobile shopping platform. The more people who list, the more inventory there is to browse and potentially buy. But as thousands of items arrive on the site, users could become besieged by merchandise and, overwhelmed, abandon it altogether.
"As you scale up, the challenge is as you add more and inventory, pretty soon, it becomes a search experience," Chandra says.
And a search-heavy experience a la eBay or Craigslist is not what Poshmark wants. So Poshmark is introducing features this week that effectively curate the volume of items added during parties in real-time, making inventory easier to shop and more personalized. Through the addition of themed showrooms, the app uses data parsing technology to group items into smaller collections that shoppers can visit. That technology, guided by meta data from each listing, is paired with curation from human hosts, usually fashion bloggers and fashion influencers such as Sundstrom of 9to5Chic, who populate showrooms with favorite items.
"The real time curation is really a way to make this very fast streaming of products coming at the consumer more relevant and easier to understand," Chandra says.
And while mobile shopping still has a long way to go before it becomes a purchasing channel among average consumers, with ABI Research predicting mobile commerce to reach just 24% of all e-commerce by 2017, Poshmark continues to emphasize it over the web. In fact, when its shoppable web site arrives next month, it will only allow visitors to buy, not sell.
It’s the app, for the time being at least, that will continue to be the place to party.