Connecting with consumers on social media is translating into sales. Image source: The Motley Fool

According to enterprise SEO and content marketing analysis specialist Searchmetrics, the social media platform can play an outsized role in helping consumers make product-purchasing decisions. Engagement, as it's called, can help boost a brand's perception, which theoretically ought to lead to higher sales.

Forrester Research found that a third of consumers who engage with companies on social networks use the platforms for brand discovery, only slightly less than the 41% who said they did so through ads placed on social networks. In fact, social networks were almost as important as search engines in exploring and researching brands or products. Users relied upon social networks 37% of the time compared to 40% for search engines.

And just as significant, of all the social networks out there, it was Facebook that was the primary resource used, just behind Google, and ahead of TV shows and advertising.

In an effort to boost sales, mass merchandisers are catching on to this trend. And since brand loyalty is huge in retail, let's dig into which big box retailer enjoys the most social media engagement with its customers. 

Searching for an answer
Searchmetrics analyzed Facebook activity surrounding three mass merchants and nine U.S. department stores during the just-passed holiday season looking to see which one enjoyed the most likes, comments, and shares.

Recently, warehouse club Costco Wholesale (NASDAQ:COST) earned high praise as the best retailer to work for in 2015, in large part because of how it treats its employees, not to mention that its customers like it too. Costco reported an 8% increase in December comparable-store sales, and analysts think it can continue growing earnings at a better than 10% clip over the next five years.

Yet despite such accolades and performance, Costco wasn't the retailer that came out on top with consumers who engaged mass merchants on Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) over the holiday season. When it comes to connecting through page likes, comments made, and shares of stories with friends, Costco actually came in third with some 5.3 million links or number of engagements experienced per week.

That's a large number by itself, but was actually just a third of the engagements enjoyed by second place Target (NYSE:TGT), which recorded 16.5 million links per week.

Bigger may be better
With Target and Costco coming in at second and third place, respectively, by now you've probably guessed that means Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT)was basically the most-liked mass merchant on Facebook this Christmas season.

The world's biggest retailer not only had more than twice as many likes, comment, and shares on Facebook than Target did, but at 40.3 million points of engagement, Wal-Mart had over seven and a half times the number than Costco did.

Despite consistent criticism, consumers still think there's a lot to like about Wal-Mart. Data: Searchmetrics

Partially that can be accounted for in their relative size difference. Wal-Mart, at 4,800 U.S. stores (including Sam's Clubs), has 10 times as many stores as does Costco, while carrying 140,000 SKUs compared to just 4,000 at its rival big-box store. Wal-Mart also employs some 1.4 million people while Costco has just 160,000 workers. But it's also a global business with operations in 27 different countries, meaning it simply has more opportunities for engagement.

The world's biggest retailer is the company people love to hate. But they love to shop there, too. Image source: The Motley Fool

However, the level of popularity it enjoyed over the Christmas season hints that its fourth quarter earnings ought to continue the gains it made in the third.

Last November Wal-Mart finally turned in a quarter with positive same store sales, the first time in two years it was able to report growing comparable sales. As it adds new formats like its smaller Neighborhood Markets concept, it will reach further into markets where its customers live and offer more opportunities to touch them.

Being "liked" matters
There's little doubt that e-commerce presents a formidable challenge to mass merchants, but the bricks-and-mortar retailers are using social media to not only broaden their own footprint, but further expand online as well. As mass merchants like Wal-Mart, Target, and Costco use social media to connect with and engage consumers, they'll continue to prove that traditional retail has not been killed off by their online rivals, but simply allowed them a new means of growing their base.