You walk through a store, pick a blue and white checked shirt off the rack, and what do you spy on the hanger? A constantly changing digital number that’s reporting, like a stock ticker, how many likes and dislikes that shirt you’re holding is racking up on a social network.

Is this the future of retail? It’s too soon to tell. But what this innovation represents -- rapid experimentation around social technology -- absolutely is.

We have no idea yet how the transformation forced on commerce by social technology will unfold. What is certain, though, is that the winners that emerge will be companies that put in place the infrastructure needed to conduct this kind of experimentation. They will discover through trial and error how to connect with consumers as social businesses that gauge the behavior of customers across all digital channels and then identify patterns to improve the experience.

Commerce isn’t simply about promoting and selling products anymore. It’s about delivering a smarter, intrinsically social and engaging shopping experience, one that caters to customers en masse as individuals, which doesn’t just inform but entertains consumers and connects them to their wider social network, and which can sift through this avalanche of social media and user interaction data to predict how tastes will change.

The imperative is simple. In 2011, social networking became the most popular online activity -- reaching 1.2 billion people -- or about 82% of the world’s Internet population. Some 30 billion pieces of social content are shared on Facebook each month. And 81% of purchasers get product purchase advice from social networks. When coupled with mobile computing, because Gartner estimates more than 1.2 billion smartphones and tablets will be sold in 2013 alone, shoppers now are more informed and have higher expectations than ever before as the shop.

It’s not enough to have a social media strategy. You have to have a digital strategy that helps you become a social business. Practically, that means expanding the focus of your online or mobile commerce strategy to include weaving  real-time insights about customers from social networks, blogs, Twitter, and user interaction patterns from both mobile and all digital apps into all of a company's operations. That starts at the supply chain and includes marketing, customer service and even research and development. This approach is about blending social technology into the foundation of your digital strategy and customers' digital experiences.  

Why? So you can engage consistently with customers wherever they’re interested in connecting with your brand. So that you can help customers network socially across all of your channels. So that your store, Web site, social networking apps, and mobile apps are linked together to ensure that you get each interaction right, especially the first one. Because five seconds is all the time you have to get the job done. That’s how quickly it takes customers to decide whether they will stay on your Web site or leave. Of the 30% that do click away from your site, 40% never return.

The explosion of digital devices globally amps up the challenge that commerce is facing. By 2016, more than 80% of the world’s population will have a mobile device. With 37% of smartphone users already turning to their gadgets to make purchases, the shift to mobile commerce is taking off fast.

The good news is that every business out there is still finding its way. Companies have time now to establish the flexible, analytics- and social technology-based infrastructure they’ll need to underpin their businesses. It’s a small window, though, and one that businesses can’t afford to waste.