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This Year, Instagram Got Closer to Being the Shopping Platform It Was Meant to Be

Our generation’s favorite mode of discovery is due to become its most efficient way of shopping.

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A blogger on her cell phone standing on the street and holding a clutch Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

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Since its 2010 inception, Instagram has always seemed like a natural fit for shopping. The app’s most popular photos are often products, the kind that would look at home on e-commerce sites or in catalogs. Users scroll through feeds looking for trends or bloggers whose fashion sense they can copy. Even non-fashion photos — a “flat lay” of a trainer’s workout outfit, or an enviably decorated living room — inspire us to seek out new products. It’s what the industry calls “discovery.”

All those thumbs poised above the “heart” icon could just as easily be hitting a “purchase” button.

A Pew Research Center survey found this month that 51 percent of US adults have bought something on a mobile phone, and 15 percent have bought something by following a link from social media. Instagram in particular is a home to shoppers; a 2015 survey of 16,000 users found that 70 percent have looked for a brand on Instagram.

But, barren of links, Instagram doesn’t lend itself to being truly “shoppable,” to use the industry jargon: You can’t easily drop links in captions, and there’s no “shopping cart” tool or place for credit card info in the app itself.

So over time, shopping on Instagram became a game of indirect, multi-step workarounds. The most familiar hack is to click to a website link pasted in a retailer’s bio (or click on an affiliate link from the likes of that non-retailers like magazines and bloggers post to earn a cut of cash).

More clever paths to shopping have been the resellers and boutique owners who utilize the comments under each photo — some ask followers to leave a note or their email addresses in a comment, while others request that followers DM them their email addresses in order to receive invoices for their desired product within the hour.

Screenshot of Instagram page Photo: @katespadeny
Screenshot of Kate Spade Instagram

2016 was the year Instagram finally gave us an official solution. The app had already rolled out shoppable ads in 2015, placing “Shop Now” banners on the ads that popped up in feeds. In November 2016 came a way to shop from regular photos: Brands can now tag their photos with product names, which users can tap to pull up an e-commerce page to purchase it.

The biggest caveat so far is that the feature is only available on 20 accounts, including J.Crew, Levi’s, Shopbop, Warby Parker, Kate Spade, Coach, and BaubleBar. Plus, tapping to purchase still takes you the brand or retailer’s website, jumping you out of Instagram itself.

But something is better than nothing — and it’s an acknowledgment of where we’re (finally) headed.

“We are so well-positioned in this space,” James Quarles, Instagram's vice president of monetization, acknowledged to Bloomberg last month. “Instagram is super visual, we have a well-defined graph of your interests based on what you're following, and the serendipity of discovery happens every day through the ad products and who you follow.”

Or, as a teen put it candidly to Refinery29, “If I’m on Instagram and I see one of my favorite celebrities wearing something, that will influence me to buy for sure.”

Instagram’s new shoppable feature from 2016 is just one more step in the inevitable march toward full-on Instagram shopping. Our generation’s favorite mode of discovery is due to become its most efficient way of shopping.