The future of fashion retail is e-commerce, but the future of e-commerce is unclear. On the one hand, e-commerce grew 15 percent in 2018, but on the other, 80 percent of those gains went to Amazon alone. And while traditional fashion retailers are set to shutter record numbers of physical stores this year, many notable digital-native brands made a concerted push into brick-and-mortar with great success.
Retailers understand they must innovate to survive, but rapidly changing technologies and tastes make it hard to decide which innovations are worth pursuing, and for marketers seeking to navigate this ever-evolving space, always staying one step ahead can prove a challenge.
Amidst the chaos of the past decade or so, one unassuming technology has quietly been proving its potential for retailers and marketers alike. Visual search began as a novel computer science demo, but as mobile cameras improve, and AI gets smarter, tech giants are increasingly throwing their weight behind this unique approach to search – and fashion is already seeing the biggest impact.
Social media has conditioned an entire generation of shoppers to think visually and seek inspiration from what they see online. Visual search empowers shoppers to act on that inspiration and cuts down on the friction between intent and action. Far from being a thing of the past, the window shopping experience is now being digitized and amplified thanks to visual search – and with the right visual optimization techniques, marketers can ensure that their brands stand out in this landscape.
A new vision for e-commerce
Visual search lets users look for images using other images instead of text. This might sound simple but translating image data into information useful for finding similar images requires deep learning technology and tons of training. Nevertheless, where visual search stands today, it is already showing potential to transform e-commerce. The underlying technology poised to drive this revolution has been quietly developing and maturing in the R&D labs of top tech giants for years.
Microsoft Bing was an early pioneer of the technology, but recent iterations by Google and Pinterest (both coincidentally named “Lens”) have carried the tech to term and proven visual search as a viable greenfield opportunity for digital commerce. In just the past few months Google unveiled shoppable ads for its image search and Instagram announced integrated e-commerce tagging within individual posts.
Although still in its infancy, visual search is already resonating with users. Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann recently shared that the company processes more than one billion visual searches each month, a number equal to the global total just one year before. Pinterest has leaned into visual search’s potential to transform e-commerce, rolling out an AI-driven “Shop the Look” feature and pushing partnerships with retail giants like Levi’s. When Pinterest made its IPO registration public this March, the company categorized itself not as a social platform but as a search engine. Even more interesting, Pinterest named Amazon its number one competitor.
This speaks volumes about where Pinterest sees the biggest potential for visual search. After decades of technology changing the way we shop, Pinterest believes the way we shop can influence new technologies. While Amazon is optimized for people who know exactly what they want, Pinterest’s visual search allows shoppers to seek out inspiration in a more organic, non-linear way.
Window shopping 2.0
Forward-thinking retailers are already implementing visual search to invigorate their online presence and deepen their connection with tech-savvy shoppers.
In May of 2018, fashion retailer Forever 21 rolled out a visual search feature, and in the month following launch the company saw increased sales conversions and a 20 percent jump in average order value. The ability to digitally replicate the age-old pastime of window shopping has similarly inspired other fashion retailers. Soon after Forever 21’s announcement, ASOS and Farfetch quickly followed suit, deploying visual search functionality of their own.
Especially amongst digital-natives currently coming of age, shopping based on photos they post or see in their newsfeed is no longer just a novelty – it’s second nature. One study found that 62 percent of GenZ and Millennial shoppers wanted visual search to be part of their shopping experience – underscoring that for marketers hoping to reach this coveted demographic, a visual search strategy is vital. The same study found that nearly 80 percent discovered products on mobile while on the go. The rise of visual search amongst digital-native shoppers makes sense because it represents an improvement in the ways they are already shopping.
Spotting social trends
In March 2019, an unlikely item became Instagram’s must-have accessory. The trend began when people started noticing the same, mysterious faux-pearl hairclips showing up on multiple influencers and celebrities. Commenters clamored to find out where to buy them, and eventually, they did – it turns out the clips came from a no-name seller on Amazon charging just $2.65 for a set of three. But they weren’t easy to find.
Holly Bullion, editor of popular fashion blog, Refinery 29, shared her experience: “I had been seeing the pearl barrettes all over Instagram and couldn’t figure out where to find them (quickly) and affordably.” She did track them down eventually, but it took some digging.
Now think about how perfectly visual search would have fit this situation. Instead of a few fashion-forward Instagrammers taking inspiration from New York Fashion Week then hunting down a stylish, affordable alternative hidden deep within Amazon, they could have simply snapped a photo and searched for “hairclips like these.”
Optimizing visual search marketing
So much of the way people naturally want to shop is far better served by visual search than it is by text search or site-navigation. It goes without saying e-commerce has made shopping incredibly convenient. But it’s also removed some of the magic and delight of just browsing between shops, scouring windows and aisles looking for nothing in particular…but holding out hope because you’ll “know it when you see it.”
How can marketers help their brands thrive in an e-commerce ecosystem where high-tech window shopping is becoming more integral?
First, it’s essential to verify that a brand’s images can be easily displayed, which means paying careful attention to image size, file type and enabling compression per device. Image file names and URLs should also be keyword rich. No less importantly, brands should include image sitemaps to help Google identify images. Other essentials for boosting a brand’s search rankings: Detailed product descriptions, structured data markups and descriptive alt-text, which helps search engines decipher images. Lastly, to help understand the context of the images, it’s recommended to have text above or below an image.
The promise of visual search for fashion e-commerce is to translate the window shopping experience into the digital age: simultaneously preserving and enhancing the benefits of e-commerce, while also recapturing and modernizing a more holistic approach to product discovery and customer experience. Visual search technology is already available and getting better each day. Now it’s up to pioneering brands to realize this bold new vision for fashion e-commerce and embrace visual search.
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