Commerce Connected

Deep Dive: Visual Search As The Next Retail Battleground

Shopping has always been highly visual, and online shopping is no different.

eCommerce’s rise has only made designing retail showrooms more complex, however. Digital brands lack brick-and-mortar stores’ advantages — customers cannot feel fabric textures or see electronics’ resolution qualities. Merchants need to bridge this gap as digital connectivity pushes the retail world’s boundaries.

Companies need all the tools they can get to keep consumers engaged in the competitive retail environment. Visual search technologies could help eCommerce brands gain the edge they need to engage customers and — more importantly — make purchases. Such tools allow consumers to find items that match photos of similar products and narrow their searches based on visual characteristics.

Visual search simulates browsing through racks at brick-and-mortar stores and can use one photo to help customers find the clothes and accessories that celebrities are wearing or dozens of more affordable, similar items.

Retailers of all sizes are enamored with visual search, which has already proven beneficial just a few years into the technology’s greater development. Social media platform Pinterest sees approximately 600 million visual searches on its Pinterest Lens tool each month, for example, although it is unclear how many of these searches turn into purchases. Studies predict that supporting visual and voice search could boost digital commerce revenues by as much as 30 percent by 2021.

The question to examine is not if these tools should be used but rather which retailers will incorporate them most effectively. Integrated visual search tools must exceed competitors’ if companies want to thrive in retail’s next stage.

The Rise of Visual Search

Shopping online is second nature for most consumers, especially millennials and Gen Z. Digital browsing cannot mirror all of physical stores’ experiences, however, which is likely why one of the earliest visual search methods — virtual try-ons — muscled their way into eCommerce. Such tools allow customers see how cosmetics or clothes would look on their bodies without leaving home.

Sephora has offered virtual try-on features for years, but consumers are beginning to ask for more. A recent study found that 62 percent of Gen Z and millennial consumers want visual search technologies.

Companies are taking note of this and are thus implementing related tools. Retail giant Target integrated Pinterest Lens into its mobile app, for example, and young adult clothing brand Forever 21 combined artificial intelligence (AI) with visual search, allowing it to offer mobile and online shoppers more personalized results. The latter reported an increased average purchase size of 20 percent for digital customers following this implementation. Clothing brand Tommy Hilfiger updated its search features in September 2019 to include a visual commerce function for its digital shoppers.

These retailers are looking to use visual search as a foothold as the market shifts and younger generations represent more shoppers. Recent research found that 81 percent of Gen Z consumers still prefer brick-and-mortar shopping, however, making visual search tools all the more important for retailers relying on digital channels.

Data Insights and Personalization

Visual search can combine the best of both worlds for these consumers. The technology is becoming more affordable, and customers are beginning to expect it, meaning competition between retailers will continue to increase. Merchants can distinguish themselves and their visual search tools with data that informs effectiveness and helps create personalized shopping experiences. AI and other automated technologies can sift through individuals’ buying and browsing habits and tailor searches, leading to greater customer conversion rates.

Using these insights requires actionable data, however, which can only be collected when customers make repeated visits to retailers’ websites. Retailers must then ask themselves how their platforms can encourage first-time shoppers to complete purchases and return for more.

The merchants that will dominate retail’s next era will be able to wield visual search as both a tool for customer conversion and further engagement. Doing so will take practice and finesse, and ambitious firms will have visual search’s best applications on their radars.



The September 2020 Leveraging The Digital Banking Shift Study, PYMNTS examines consumers’ growing use of online and mobile tools to open and manage accounts as well as the factors that are paramount in building and maintaining trust in the current economic environment. The report is based on a survey of nearly 2,200 account-holding U.S. consumers.