Image: Amazon

Amazon is hoping to figure out social commerce before social networks can solve shopping. It announced TikTok-like functionality that could turn Amazon into a discovery destination. Last week, Amazon launched Inspire – “an in-app shopping experience that gives customers a new way to discover ideas, explore products, and seamlessly shop from content created by other customers, influencers, and brands they love.” The experience is similar to a TikTok feed, featuring endless photos and videos shoppers can swipe through. Once they see something they like, they can buy it in a few clicks. 

Amazon wants shoppers to spend time in the Amazon app even when they don’t want to shop. It is trying to solve a weakness most shopping websites and apps have in the U.S. – consumers only open them when they know they need something. They do not open them to browse casually (they open apps like TikTok instead). Thus, e-commerce is very transactional and does not have the same discovery and browsing experience as physical retail. “The internet lets you buy, but it doesn’t let you shop,” wrote independent analyst Benedict Evans.

Prior to making the Inspire announcement, Amazon had largely abandoned attempts to innovate in shopping. It discovered the “Minimum Viable Amazon” a decade ago and has been only slightly improving it since. Over the past few years, advertising has even replaced product recommendations and personalization on the company’s e-commerce site. “Amazon really solved buying, but it killed shopping in the process,” said Emily Weiss, the founder of the beauty brand Glossier, told Recode back in 2019.

Amazon Inspire app

The challenge is that Amazon’s Inspire content will compete for attention with other apps like TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and dozens more. While those platforms have added shopping functionality over time, they are not focused exclusively on shopping. For example, despite TikTok driving massive traffic to Amazon during Prime Day, it also has so much more. Meanwhile, Pinterest is in the process of incorporating a shopping element, with the image sharing and social media company acquiring AI-powered shopping platform The Yes early this year to further bolster the “evolution of our shopping vision.”

Amazon’s new shopping feature is TikTok-like only on the surface; without content, it will not work. But Amazon has confirmed that brands, influencers, and – crucially – other shoppers will be able to post content on it. If Amazon could attract a large volume of content from hundreds of millions of shoppers, it could build social network-like functionality seen on TikTok and other apps. Although, Amazon already tried launching social networks – like Spark in 2017 – which went nowhere. When announced, Amazon described it almost exactly as it described Inspire five years later, “When customers first visit Spark, they select at least five interests they’d like to follow, and we’ll create a feed of relevant content contributed by others. Customers shop their feed by tapping on product links or photos with the shopping bag icon.”

Today, social apps are ahead in the commerce race with Amazon. Practically all have launched some version of e-commerce functionality. Amazon is catching up, but social features are a unique challenge, which, even given Amazon’s excellence in other fields, will be very difficult. Social commerce is a competition for attention, and that is where Amazon will face the biggest hurdle – stealing it from TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram.

Joe Kaziukenas is the founder of Marketplace Pulse, a business intelligence firm focused on e-commerce.