Net-a-Porter, the glossy e-boutique that’s set to merge with Yoox and create an online luxury-tech giant, announced this morning that it will launch its own mobile-app-based social network. Called The Net Set, its users will be able to interact and share images like most social networks—with a twist. The company’s image-recognition software will analyze the images and find the closest match in Net-a-Porter’s inventory, then offer it up to users for purchase.
Take a picture of your friend’s shirt that you love, and The Net Set will find it, or a close match. And it doesn’t just work for images of clothing: Snap a particularly purplish sunset and The Net Set might recommend this ombre Burberry Prorsum dress.
The app’s initial invite-only launch will happen on May 13. After that, it has plenty of potential users to draw on. The Net Set’s announcement points out that Net-a-Porter “currently attracts more than 6 million unique monthly visitors and has built a community of over 4.1 million fans and followers across 9 social media channels.”
It will be a major addition to the social-commerce marketplace, which is the holy grail of fashion retail right now. Several companies are vying to combine the high traffic and engagement rates of a social network with the ability to purchase the stuff users see on that network—and if they can do it on mobile, all the better.
Social media is now the number one activity on the internet, having surpassed pornography some years ago, and about 60% of that activity takes place on smartphones or tablets. At the same time, shoppers are increasingly buying via the internet and using their phones to do so. A shoppable social network is the highly lucrative best of all worlds.
Net-a-Porter will be joining a group of companies with widely varying business models in the market. Last year, RewardStyle launched LikeToKnow.it, which lets brands and users make their Instagram feeds shoppable through an email workaround of Instagram’s restrictions on adding links in captions. If you sign up and “like” an image on Instagram that the poster has captioned with a LikeToKnow.it URL, you’ll get an email with a link to the product featured. A number of companies, including big names such as Matches and even Vogue, now use the program.
Poshmark offers still another approach. It lets users chat and follow each other, as well as buy and sell their stuff—basically a social version of eBay. It raised $25 million in its latest round of funding, and is on track to do $200 million in sales this year.
These are two of the more successful businesses doing social commerce, however. Many have tried and failed.
A major challenge companies in social commerce face is how to let users buy the products they see. The startups building platforms for users to interact and share images generally don’t also directly sell clothing. It requires a huge amount of cash to buy and then store all the inventory—imagine if Instagram tried to keep on hand every pair of shoes that appeared in its users photos. Typically these companies solve the problem by linking out to the retailers who do carry the items with affiliate links. But almost 70% of shoppers abandon the items they put in their shopping carts as it is. Shoppers are even less likely to complete a purchase when they’re being bounced to another site to buy.
The Net Set skirts that problem, since it already stocks the products it offers for purchase.
As long as its image-recognition technology works well—not an easy feat—Net-a-Porter’s new venture is set up for success in a way most other companies in social commerce aren’t. And if its merger with Yoox goes through without any bumps, increasing its clothing inventory, technical infrastructure, and user base even further, it could easily become the gold standard in the market.