It is only March, but Ms Kaitie Manani has made more sales in the first three months of the year than she did for all of last year.
Th Australian, who runs the Singapore-based online swimwear and resortwear shop Vamastyle, says she has photo-sharing app Instagram to thank.
She began uploading product images of her designs more actively in October last year after she noticed that Instagram was popular among the fashion community. "It's not a coincidence that when I post an image on Instagram, I immediately get sales for that product," says Ms Manani, 35, who started her online shop in 2011.
Retailers say that Instagram, which was launched in 2010, has been an unexpected but significant boon to online shopping.
Though users cannot buy anything directly on the app, it has nonetheless contributed to a growth in sales for shops that are savvy about posting to their accounts.
Ms Alicia Tsi, 26, who runs online boutique Al Et Clar, says that sales have increased by about 10 per cent since she started posting product photographs more regularly six months ago.
Ms Sarah Tan, who runs designer resale boutique Robe Raiders, says she can deliver images directly to customers without them ever having to go to the store's website.
The Robe Raiders account has more than 1,900 followers who bring in about 40 per cent of the boutique's sales. The store sells pre-loved designer goods from labels such as Chanel, Herve Leger and Tory Burch.
"Many customers come to our shop at Delta House because of the regular postings they see on Instagram," says Ms Tan, 35.
While websites take expertise and time to design and maintain, anyone can post an artsy picture to Instagram using the app's array of funky editing features.
With Instagram, designers and small business owners have found a publicity channel that is easy to use, free and reaches a target audience instantly.
Mr Colin Chen, creative director of lifestyle store Tyrwhitt General Company, says: "It helps that it is relatively easy to snap, crop and filter images before uploading them. With a traditional camera, photos had to be downloaded to a computer before any editing could be done."
The 30-year-old is sure that Instagram has increased sales, although he could not pinpoint a figure.
The store, which has more than 1,400 followers on Instagram, posts pictures of handmade goods by local and international brands that are stocked at its outlet in Tyrwhitt Road.
As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and one of the marketing strengths of Instagram is the branding retailers can create through carefully curated images.
Whether it is the sparkling colours that pop out of the images of American jewellery e-tailer BaubleBar's glass statement jewellery, the dreamy aesthetic of local lifestyle retailer Flea & Trees, or the playful assertiveness of Club 21's recent video clip of a Marc by Marc Jacobs purse growing its own legs and walking off, retailers are using Instagram to sell a look, feeling or desire effectively.
A WAY TO GAUGE CUSTOMER INTEREST
According to Ms Freda Kwok, 26, principal consultant at digital marketing cosultancy firm Blugrapes, the app lets retailers employ a more dynamic approach and less of a hard sell in staking their ground in the marketplace.
Besides boosting sales, retailers say the application is a quick way to gauge consumer interest in their products.
"You can find out how many people love your product just by judging the number of 'likes' it gets," says Ms Sarah Tang, 27, who runs a new online jewellery store Just Tangy. She sells international brands such as Australian label Claire Aristides and American label Kiel James Patrick.
Robe Raiders says 90 per cent of customer queries come through Instagram, making it "the window shopping phone application", says Ms Tan.
The major advantage of Instagram over a website is its social networking capabilities, Mr Daniel Saynt, creative director of marketing agency Socialyte in New York City, tells Urban in an e-mail.
"Most marketers know that you need to be where your market is. For fashion brands looking to reach young female consumers, Instagram is the most obvious choice," says Mr Saynt.
Instagram does not release official demographic data. But a 2012 report from American technology website CNET says that over half of Instagram users are below the age of 35, based on data obtained from consumer behaviour research group Experian Hitwise.
Retailers here say that it is hard to pinpoint an age group, but a significant number of their followers are in their 20s and 30s.
By encouraging existing followers to tag or hashtag (phrases with the hash symbol) them, brands can expand their reach, which is why many brands create hashtags for their daily Instagram posts, says Mr Jansen Siak, 41, managing director of public relations company Word Of Mouth Communications.
"It allows the brand, event or information to be searched easily and reach a specific target audience. People are able to follow or repost the photo," says Mr Siak, who represents companies such as Uniqlo and Laneige in Singapore and gives them ideas on how they can engage customers on social media.
These plus points far outweigh the fact that Instagram has no in-application payment feature, which barely hampers sales. Jewellery label By Invite Only, clothing stores State of Mind, Everyday People, Leen Studio and lifestyle store Flea & Trees are just some stores that accept orders off Instagram.
Shoppers can e-mail to place orders and provide payment through Internet bank transfer or PayPal.
Ms Ding Xuan, 25, owner of Everyday People, says that she accepts orders through e-mail as many of her customers are between the ages of 17 and 25 and do not have a credit card. About 60 per cent of her sales are conducted through e-mail and payment is made through Internet bank transfers.
It is a sunny outlook for Instagram, but retailers see one cloud on the horizon: how long will it stay free?
Facebook, which bought Instagram in 2012 for US$1 billion (S$1.26 billion), charges companies a fee to have posts show up on Facebook's news feeds which reach a wider spectrum of followers.
Instagram could not be reached for comment on the e-commerce activities on its website.
But a New York Times blog post earlier this month reported that Instagram has no plans to stifle e-commerce, as long as sellers do not go against the company's terms of service, for example, by spamming users.
The main downside to Instagram, say most retailers, is that the application does not allow "click-outs" in a post which would lead users via a link to a website within the application. At present, when a user clicks on a link, it opens up in the Web browser application, which can be disruptive.
Mr Saynt says that this means brands will have to think of creative ways to get followers to leave Instagram to view the rest of the items on the website.
TIME SAVER FOR SHOPPERS
But this is a small quibble for the 150 million users of Instagram such as Ms Desiree Ng, a trainee lawyer who turns to Instagram as her means of escape.
"I don't have much time to look at many websites, let alone go out shopping. But with Instagram, I follow the brands I like and everything is on one platform," says the 25-year-old.
"If there are more likes on a photo, I'm more inclined to buy it or at least spend a longer time looking at it."
She usually heads to the Topshop store if she sees something that she likes on the brand's Instagram account.
Student Eileen Poh, 22, who uses Instagram every day, says she looks at the app on the premise that stores showcase only their best products on it.
Ms Poh, who follows online retailers Asos and Nasty Gal, says that both shops have thousands of items on their website.
"Instagram saves me a lot of time from having to trawl through everything," she says.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 21, 2014
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