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If a potential customer knows what she wants to purchase, it’s a fairly straightforward process to find the item and complete the transaction. But when a customer wants something undefined — say, a birthday gift for a grandchild or a special-occasion outfit — that’s not always the case.

That’s where “discovery-based commerce” comes into play. Given the slice of e-commerce sales captured by Amazon, which rang up revenues of more than $61 billion in 2012, online retailers need to consider ways to engage customers and inspire them to make purchases, says Veronika Sonsev, CEO of inSparq, a provider of discovery-based solutions.

As Sonsev points out, a customer walking into a bricks-and-mortar store often will see items that might spark an idea for a purchase. “When you’re online, there’s not the same opportunity to get the same signals,” she says.

inSparq offers an enterprise-grade social merchandising solution that integrates real-time suggestions based on items that are trending. “This provides inspiration. It shows what’s popular at the moment,” Sonsev says.

With inSparq’s solutions, input from social media is naturally weighted by the level of activity on each site. Twitter typically is more active when a retailer is holding a flash sale, while Pinterest is frequently used for fashion ideas, Sonsev says.

Weighing social activity
North Carolina-based children’s apparel retailer Lolly Wolly Doodle, which offers its products on Facebook and through its e-commerce site, implemented inSparq earlier this year.

Using sales and social media activity data, inSparq generates a list of items trending at the moment, including both products that customers are purchasing as well as those they’re sharing on social media sites.

Although LWD’s e-commerce site is less than a year old, it already accounts for about 25 percent of sales, says COO Emily Hickey. An analysis of shopper behavior shows that inSparq really drives purchasing.

“People don’t want to dig through the entire site,” Hickey says. The inSparq solution features a “nice, user-curated representation of the entire collection.”

The applications have proven to be beneficial: The click-through rate on the Trending Products Feed is 16.7 percent, while the conversion rate is 4.4 percent, Hickey says.

Focused on innovation
Partnering with inSparq affords rapidly growing retailers like LWD an opportunity to augment their technical capabilities quickly. “We could turn it on overnight to drive purchasing,” Hickey says.

Sonsev and her colleagues at inSparq are “on the cutting edge in their thinking,” Hickey says. As a result, LWD can gain a solid perspective on many new technology solutions. “We don’t have to think about innovating on this front. … It’s like having a partner focused on that,” she says.

inSparq’s goal is to provide a complete social merchandising solution. “We have a broader vision to use social signals [shares, comments and purchases] for merchandising recommendations and to use socially optimized design to create a more engaging customer experience,” Sonsev says.

While inSparq’s current focus is online retail, some of its clients also have bricks-and-mortar stores. The software doesn’t currently factor in the sales that take place in physical stores, but “it’s definitely something we’re considering,” Sonsev says.

Given the results, and the cost-effectiveness of the inSparq solution, “it’s a no-brainer” to use it, Hickey says. “It helps people discover items they might not find. It drives social discovery and gives people ideas of what to buy without having to go through the entire site.”