Forget (Lil) Green Patch: Now Facebook users can buy real flowers

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If you've been on Facebook for even a little while, you already know about the gifts. Every day, among the friend requests, quiz scores, updates and notes, there are usually a few random presents from your various Facebook pals. If you play "Mafia Wars," they may be things like a stabproof vest or a bodyguard; if you gravitate toward the "little green patch," they tend to be strange images of small children dressed as flowers, sort of like what would happen if Anne Geddes took over the Island of Dr. Moreau. The gift options run the gamut from booze to balloons, cats to cocktails, valentines to 'vettes. The one thing they are not, of course, is real.

Until now.
On Wednesday, 1-800-Flowers.com (FLWS), a florist and gift shop, announced that it has opened a store inside Facebook. While thousands of companies already have fan pages on the site, the new store allows users to purchase tangible, real-world gifts that they can send to friends and family.

It isn't surprising that the florist is leading the way to a new field of sales. One of the first retailers to run an around-the-clock 1-800 number, it was also among the first companies to move online and, in 1994, became the first company to transact business through AOL. In fact, 1-800-Flowers.com's unwieldy name almost stands as a testament to the march of technology, as each communications advance has caused a comparable extension in its moniker.

At first glance, 1-800-Flowers.com's Facebook move doesn't seem like a huge step forward. After all, there are hundreds of online florists, and a computer user engaged in Facebook need only open a second browser window in order to use one of them. However, by demonstrating a way for traditional retailers to monetize Facebook, the florist has opened the door to a wide variety of interactions between fans and commerce on the site.

On a base level, 1-800-Flowers.com's store simply makes it possible for some users to stay on the site a little longer. Given that Facebook, like many other internet sites, measures its effectiveness by the amount of time people spend in it, the new flower outlet should marginally increase the site's numbers.

From a broader perspective, however, the store has the potential to fundamentally change the face of online commerce. Facebook's key strength lies in its potential for marketing: in addition to facilitating interactions between users, the site also aggregates preferences. Every fan page that users choose or application that they open adds to the amount of information that is available to the site. This, incidentally, is why the adds that often appear on the right-hand side of the screen are so beautifully targeted to individual users.

If 1-800-Flowers.com's move into selling works out, it could signal the transformation of the internet's biggest information aggregator into the internet's biggest targeted marketing dreadnought. Admittedly, this could backfire for 1-800-Flowers.com: the online retailer already has a half dozen Facebook groups that are dedicated to griping about orders that it has lost, holidays that it has ruined, and relationships that it has destroyed. As the florist expands its business, it may be wise to tread carefully: Facebook's preference aggregation works both ways and the internet never forgets a mistake!

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