Retailers increasingly are using Pinterest, a social media site that allows users to create collections of photos, articles, recipes, videos and other images that are called "pins," to draw business to their own sites.
Shoes, handbags and other popular items on Pinterest are being prominently displayed in Nordstrom stores with special tags. Target, the nation's No. 2 discounter, is creating exclusive party-planning collections with top Pinterest users, or "pinners." And Caribou created a coffee blend that was inspired by the coffee chain's Pinterest fans.
The interest in Pinterest comes as retailers increasingly realize the power of social media sites to steer business their way. They've found while smartphone-toting Americans are spending time opining and posting photos online, they also can be encouraged to spend money.
A report on Tuesday from software company Adobe found that year over year, revenue per visit, or revenue from sending users to retail sites through ads, social media pages or brand posts, is 65 cents at Pinterest, 62 cents at Twitter and $1.24 at Facebook.
Founded in 2009, Pinterest is a relative newbie in social media, but its unique interface sets it apart as a marketing tool for retailers. Users can bookmark images they find on the web under topics they create. When users pin an image, Pinterest displays any picture that is associated with it. The effect is similar to a bulletin board: Pins are organized under topics called "boards." Users can follow other people's boards.
The site has become popular among vacationers, designers, hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers. For them, surfing the site can be like falling down a rabbit hole: A search for "red shoes," for instance, could turn up thousands of pins. The site also can be slightly addictive to regular users: Log on for minutes and some users wind up spending hours trawling through boards.
As a result Pinterest is the fourth-largest social media site, with 58.2 million unique users in March 2014, according to research firm comScore. It's behind only Facebook with 198.8 million users, Twitter with 114.3 million users and LinkedIn with 71.7 million users, comScore reports.
But Pinterest might be more valuable to retailers than some of its rivals. Data shows that Pinterest users shop more when they follow links to retailers' web sites. When "pinners" buy, the average order value is $199.16, compared with $92.27 for Facebook and $58.02 for Twitter, according to data analytics company RichRelevance.
Sarah Page, 22, says she has shopped on store sites as a result of finding them on Pinterest, including lulu.com and weddingdressbee.com, where she recently bought a dress. "It definitely generates more shopping," says the business analyst from Arlington, Va. "You don't go to different stores' web sites every day, but you check your Pinterest home page every day."
Regine Labossiere, 32, also shops via Pinterest links. After she started using Pinterest two years ago to plan her wedding, the publicist in Brooklyn, N.Y., got hooked on the site's "shoppable" feel. She most recently bought an $18.99 watering can on Casa.com, after searching for the item on Pinterest. "It has that shopping vibe," she says.
Retailers have noticed shoppers' affinity for Pinterest. Caribou Coffee, which has about 3,500 Pinterest followers, last year asked fans to share what inspires them with the hashtag #caribouinspires. Then, it created a blend of coffee based on the submissions called "Real Inspiration." Home-improvement chain Lowe's, which has 3.5 million followers, users Pinterest to post project ideas using products from Lowe's on a Pinterest board called "The Finishing Touch."
And Nordstrom, which has 4.4 million followers, used data about top pinned items to create in-store displays. Executives have noticed certain items tend to go viral on the site, such as mason jars and a crochet swimsuit by Robin Piccone, which "seems to have a never ending shelf life" on Pinterest, says Bryan Galipeau, Nordstrom's social media manager.
"The unique thing about Pinterest from a retailer's perspective is it's really about the products," he says.
For its part, Target, which has 152,000 Pinterest followers, launched a beta web site in December called Target Awesome Shop that highlights the most popular Target items pinned on Pinterest. The site now offers 1,100 items, ranging from an inflatable movie screen to a tufted loveseat. Target doesn't disclose revenue but Rick Gomez, senior vice president of marketing, says Pinterest is a "strong social driver of traffic to Target.com."
Target also is partnering with three Pinterest users with the most followers on a new line of party products. The first collection, with designer Joy Cho, launched March 16 and includes colorful hats, plates, napkins and other items. Cho, who joined in Pinterest in 2010 and has 13.6 million followers, says she is often inspired by Pinterest. "It's the equivalent to tearing out magazine pages and making a scrapbook," she says.
At first Pinterest worked with retailers for free. But in recent months the site has tested services that would allow it to charge for such things as promoted pins, which would are similar to ads.
eMarketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson said Pinterest's business is going in the right direction since promoted items on Facebook and Twitter have conditioned social media users for ad intrusion. "I think if Pinterest ... makes sure ads ... fit in with what people are doing on Pinterest, I don't think they'll face ... backlash," she says
In the meantime, Pinterest has no steady revenue stream. But investors seem to have confidence in the privately-held company: Pinterest has raised enough from venture capitalists to value the company at $3.8 billion.
"Pinterest ... helps people plan their futures," says Steve Patrizi, Pinterest head of partner marketing. "Businesses are an important part of this because pins can be anything you can find on the web, from products to articles to recipes."