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All hail the hashtag: How retailers are drawing you in, one Facebook post at a time

Glenda Campos is bouncing off the wall of the new John Fluevog shoe store.

It's not a new fitness craze. Rather, it's an image of her in the funky shop that she posted recently on Instagram, in the process giving the retailer a viral plug. She's among hundreds of shoppers who have snapped photos and uploaded them (hashtag #vogvault or #fluevog) from a room in the Queen Street West store that has furniture on its side, bolted to a wall. Pictures create the illusion that people are jumping off walls or hanging upside down.

"Everybody has been asking me: 'How did you do it?'" Campos, 28, laughs. "I like when retailers do stuff like that. [It's] an opportunity to show your personality."

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Welcome to Retail 3.0, in which retailers use social media in a bid to draw young shoppers such as Campos back to bricks-and-mortar outlets.

Just a few years ago trendy shops lured consumers with an in-store coffee bar or barber shop. But today a hot brew or hair trim isn't enough: Retailers increasingly feel the pressure to attract cyber-savvy shoppers to their physical outlets with eye-catching social media experiences that can be shared multiple times.

The social-media initiatives range from fitting rooms in Kate Spade stores that provide a backdrop for selfies with "like?" in a speech bubble to luxury parka purveyor Nobis installing photo booths at its store launch parties; and department store Nordstrom, whose roots are in shoes, encouraging shoppers to "shoefie" (take a selfie of their footwear) next to the store's name. The images, uploaded on social media, put a spotlight on the brands.

"It brings people's attention to the store who otherwise might not have heard of its opening," says Robin Yates, vice-president of Nobis, which will install a photo booth later this month when its new Queen Street West flagship officially opens. "It really says, 'We're here.'"

The postings can have ripple effects. Yates estimates social-media posts can pump up sales during an event as much as 20 per cent. About 60 per cent of Canadian consumers say they've come into contact with different products and brands through social media and, of those, 46 per cent say the interactions resulted in them making more purchases, up from 32 per cent in 2014, according to a survey this year by consultancy PwC.

Still, for the digital-picture-sharing promotion to work, the photo has to be compelling and tied to the brand in some way, Stephen Bailey, chief marketing officer at Fluevog, says. Otherwise, it risks being too commercial and turning off consumers.

In Fluevog's case, the image of the sideways sofa, book shelves and rug is "weird" but iconic, as it recreates part of the chain's first store in Vancouver in 1970, he says. The setting is the background of a picture of founder John Fluevog and his first wife; that photo is in all 20 Fluevog stores.

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The image being shared on social media "has to be something where it instantly occurs to people to share it and has to be easy to share," Bailey says.

Malls also feel the heat to lure millennials, who are increasingly shopping online. Cadillac Fairview, which owns the CF Toronto Eaton Centre and other major malls, has run multiple social-media campaigns, which helped boost traffic more than 35 per cent on social channels such as Facebook in the past 10 months, says Jason Anderson, senior vice-president of marketing.

For the back-to-school season, it invited shoppers at 19 of its malls across Canada to upload on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter photos of themselves with their head poking out of cardboard posters of outfits available at the centres, using the hashtag #WhoWillYouBe. About 800 people posted their pictures over four weeks, and each property gave out a $500 gift card, he says.

"It's ultimately about recognizing that this is already a huge vehicle of communication for our customers," Anderson, a former Microsoft executive, says.

For consumers, social media can be entertaining, but also a vehicle to post a rant about a retailer's shortfalls. For shopkeepers, it can be risky business.

"Your customer isn't always going to ask: 'What's the hot colour this fall?'" Anderson acknowledges. "Sometimes your customer is going to ask: 'Why does it take me an hour to find a parking spot?'"

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But sometimes, the buzz from social-media manoeuvres results in new customers. At Fluevog in August, Campos was taken by the quirky sideways room (a former bank vault) and the footwear. A Mexican who was in Toronto visiting her brother, she bought three pairs of Fluevog shoes for a total of about $810. Later she ordered another pair online ($300) for her mother.

"It's a fun store to be in," Campos says. "It's kind of a fresh take."

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