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Sold, via social media

Three-year-old Route One Apparel ships between 100 and 200 orders on an average day, now about 600 thanks to the holiday rush. But until very recently, the company had not paid a cent for advertising.

Susan Aplin, left, and Deborah Baldini, both of bambeco, green home decor merchandise that they sell on their website.

“Social media is so second nature to me I guess because of my age I’ve grown up with it,” said Ali von Paris, the 23-year-old founder of Route One Apparel, now based in Hunt Valley. “Up until a couple months ago it was my only advertising.”

It’s not just millennial entrepreneurs that are taking to Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds. According to a study from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, 96 percent of specialty retailers on the 2013 Fortune 500 list have an active Facebook account, and 91 percent are active on Twitter.

“In the retail industry, buzz is one of those things everybody strives to but no one understands,” said Patrick Donoho, president of the Maryland Retailers Association. “You have to have the presence on the web and you have to be doing what everybody else is doing, and doing it a little bit better.”

Online and affordable

Route One Apparel’s first paid ad was in The Diamondback, the student newspaper at von Paris’ alma mater, the University of Maryland, College Park. But before that, the company was doing just fine on social media, reaching more than 60,000 Facebook fans, more than 12,000 Twitter followers and more than 17,000 Instagram followers.

The company is primarily an online retailer, though it consigns products to a few shops in Maryland. It has developed more than 300 products, including popular classics like the Maryland flag bikini, as well as limited-edition designs. Sales for the site typically quadruple during the holiday season, said von Paris, depending on the deals offered.

But gaining a following isn’t just about offering deals.

“It’s all about convincing the customer to trust you,” she said. “Not only are people seeing the ad, they’re seeing posts from their friends.”

Von Paris manages Route One Apparel’s social media marketing on her own, but Baltimore-based online retailer bambeco, which sells environmentally friendly home products ranging from candles to dining tables, has a team of six people who maintain the company’s Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest accounts.

Between 15 and 20 percent of the retailer’s customers come from active social media, said co-founder and CEO Susan Aplin.

“We basically elected to not throw a lot of money into online marketing investment,” she said. “We elected to build out the channels where we thought people were going.”

The company also focuses on where those customers are coming from — the device, that is. About 35 percent of bambeco’s customers visit on mobile phones, while an additional 26 percent came from tablets. With numbers like that, the company has chosen to optimize its site, creating a platform to better suit mobile devices.

“Mobile is so optimized now, in real time with the social media channels,” said Aplin. “We can reach people throughout the day.”

Two days ago, on Cyber Monday, mobile devices accounted for 17 percent of sales and 32 percent of site traffic, according to IBM 2013 Holiday Benchmark Reports. This represents a 55 percent and 45 percent year-over-year increase, respectively.

According to the same reports, more than a fifth of all online sales on Black Friday came from a mobile device, an increase of 43 percent from last year. Mobile devices accounted for almost 40 percent of online traffic that day, up 34 percent from last year.

“It has radically changed how people do business,” said Donoho, “because it’s an ever-changing environment.”

Engaging approach

At Timonium-based Smyth Jewelers, social media outreach has recently become a greater focus. The family-owned jeweler has three storefronts in Maryland, and began to emphasize social media more during the past year to better reach a young engagement crowd.

“Our philosophy is if we target that audience, once they become our customer for an engagement ring they’ll usually become our customer for the rest of their life,” said Dana Smith, of Smyth’s advertising team.

It’s closing in on 30,000 Facebook likes.

In its social media efforts, Smyth uses a local appeal — taking advantage of local icons like Natty Boh and Salie Utz, and planning promotions around the Ravens football schedule.

It’s this playful approach, said Smith, that keeps customers engaged.

“You don’t want to beat people over the head all the time with the selling points,” said Smith. “People tend to forget that your customers are people.”