Beckie Tran doesn't have kids, which means she usually has no clue what presents to buy for her friends' children. Fortunately she gets advice from a separate group of buddies — including people she's never even met.
Tran gets those gift ideas, and tips on dozens of other kinds of products, from her network of friends on Kaboodle.com, a Web site devoted to the fast-growing Internet category of "social shopping."
Social shopping sites with such names as Kaboodle, ThisNext, Wishpot and StyleHive combine two of the Web's most prominent activities: engaging in commerce and chatting with like-minded folks. The sites don't directly sell things, but encourage users to share links to good bargains, obscure finds, products that work and ones that don't.
The results look much like colorful social-networking Web pages such as Facebook and MySpace, complete with personal information and lists of friends who share particular interests. But on social shopping sites, the photos and discussions revolve around products.
Many users find it utterly addicting, logging on at least daily to see products that other people are looking for or have discovered. These members say the shopping lists their fellow users post are often funky, personal elements of self-expression, as much as that may sound like an overly exalted way of describing what is, after all, consumption.
Shopping on the Internet is overwhelming, so people are driven to the big box stores' Web sites because it's easy, said Tran, 30, who designs custom wedding invitations and stationery in Santa Clara, Calif.
On Kaboodle, "you've got hundreds of people shopping together, and it's a lot of fun to see what people are finding," she said. "I found a lot of things I wouldn't have found."
For example, beyond children's gifts, Tran has come across high-quality, artisanal wrapping paper on Kaboodle, plus a $200 Crosley Traveler Stack-O-Matic record player that reminded her of ones she had as a child.
The market research firm Hitwise says social shopping is still a small corner of the Internet, accounting for way less than 1 percent of all U.S. Web visits. But visits to social shopping sites took an eightfold leap in 2007.
That attention — and the money these sites can make from ads and from sharing revenue with affiliate retailers to which they send buyers — captured the attention of Hearst Corp. The publisher recently spent an undisclosed sum to acquire Kaboodle, which is the most widely used social shopping site.
Kaboodle founder and CEO Manish Chandra sees an obvious tie to Hearst's traditional print world. Perusing the site to see all the things people want, have bought or are discussing is "almost like browsing through 10, 20, 30 different catalogs," he said.
That element exists elsewhere on the Internet, where other sites have product recommendations, price comparisons and elements of personal expression. Even major brand retailers are letting consumers post reviews — positive and negative — about their goods.
"We have never seen, in the past few decades, the shift in power to consumers that we're seeing now," said Pat Conroy, vice chairman and lead consumer products consultant for Deloitte & Touche USA LLP.
However, users say the difference in social shopping sites is the way they focus not just on the buying of things but on the quest for them. That includes things people think are funny or interesting but would never actually buy — like yachts and $1,000 boxes of steaks, both of which Tran has on a Kaboodle list just as a topic of conversation.
In fact, Gartner Inc. analyst Ray Valdes uses anthropological terms to distinguish between "solo hunting" — the quick, targeted purchases you would make on a traditional Web retail site — and the "social gathering" facilitated by social shopping sites. Because social gathering behaviors generally lead people to buy things they might not otherwise purchase, Valdes believes Web sites that nurture those instincts "will shape the future of e-commerce."
Some social shopping sites go beyond product lists generated by average Joes and Janes, and appoint celebrities or mavens in certain categories, from shoes to gadgets, to offer more specific tips. That raises the question of whether retailers will try to co-opt social shopping sites by paying people to place subtle plugs for their products in forums that supposedly contain only unbiased advice from "real people."
Sites do try block such attempts, hunting for people who, for example, suspiciously post only positive comments. Those postings can be deleted, or the user might be prevented from adding links to certain retail sites.
Still, Kaboodle's Chandra acknowledges that marketing plants surely "fly under our radar all the time." But like other social shopping creators, Chandra doubts that attempts to game the system can gain much influence over users who are hyper-alert to product comments and wish lists that lack authenticity.
That will have to be true for social shopping to maintain the power-to-the-consumer ethos driving it.
"We want to create a million mini Oprah Winfreys," said ThisNext CEO Gordon Gould. "Why is she powerful? Because people think she's genuine, she's authentic. She's giving recommendations from the heart. We're (doing that and) scaling that across every product category across the Web."
The concept works well for Adiel Cloud of West Jordan, Utah, who trusts strangers' recommendations so much that she has amassed 150 people on her Kaboodle buddy lists, only one of whom she actually has met.
"It's just fascinating, the things people come up with and are selling on the Internet," she said, citing a little camera tripod she bought that snaps onto a bottle for quick photo steadying. "You might not see that in your everyday Target or mall."