Every time a new visual search deal comes along — like the major one involving Amazon and Snap, one rumored but officially announced on Monday (Sept. 24) — it seems a good time to remind ourselves that text is dead and that we live in a post-literate society. As was the case many centuries ago, pictures are a more dominant form of communication than words, which means heartbreak for book and word nerds, aging English majors and people who find joy in fixing comma splices or lecturing about the differences between “that” and “who.”
Let’s take a moment to review the recently announced deal.
According to Snap, the new feature, which is being rolled out slowly, is “super easy to use,” and requires that the consumer points his or her Snapchat camera at a physical product or barcode to grab the relevant information via the image. The underlying software recognizes the product, after which an Amazon card appears on screen, along with a link for the specific or similar product in question. The consumer can then make a purchase via the Amazon mobile app or through Amazon.com.
Other Visual Moves
Other retailers, too, are improving their visual search capabilities. This summer, for instance, apparel retail chain Forever 21 unveiled visual search for its website and mobile eCommerce platforms. The technology, which is powered by artificial intelligence, was developed by Donde Search, the retailer said in an announcement.
To search for items like dresses, pants and jeans, customers can access a “Discover Your Style” module on the retailer’s website and mobile site. The feature, which was rolled out through the retailer’s iOS app in May, was first available for tops and dresses. During the first month that the app was available, the company reported a 20 percent increase in average purchase value for those two categories, as well as an increase in sales conversions.
Just before that, H&M beefed up its visual search offerings during an upgrade to the retailer’s eCommerce and mobile platforms, enabling consumers to better shop via product images. Shoppers can upload a photo, and the platforms use that photo to search for relevant items. In addition, shoppers can find products by scanning their price tags to check size and color options. Beyond search features, the upgraded platforms enable shoppers to review products that they purchased online, and they can rate an item on a five-star scale and provide feedback on the fit and size.
Visual search is not only for online retail. A voice-activated mirror in H&M’s New York City flagship store employs consumer-generated selfies and other images to provide product options.
And the airline industry has grasped the power of visuals. A system that officially debuted in late spring enables airlines to use product images to better showcase that “their wares on travel agents’ screens will help sell fancier seats, tastier meals, lounge access and flight options — and give profits a lift.” Early results include a lift in ticket sales and site visitors.
The Discovery Problem
Visual search can play a profitable role in digital retail, countering consumers’ tendencies to leave an eCommerce site. The use of visual search in retail helps to reduce what’s been called the “Discovery Problem,” according to an analysis published earlier this year by Search Engine Watch: “The Discovery Problem is when shoppers have so many options to choose from on a retailer’s website that they simply stop shopping. Visual search reduces the number of choices and helps shoppers find what they want more effectively.”
That column goes onto to state that “it’s safe to assume that the future of visual search engines will be retail-dominated. For now, it’s easier to search for information with words.” That said, not all industries and consumer activities, no matter how digital they are or will become, will rely as much on visual search. “Services, for instance, may be more likely to rely on textual search engines, whereas sales may be more likely to rely on visual search engines,” Search Engine Watch said.
Younger consumers, as may be expected, are more keen to use visual search than older shoppers. They already use image-heavy social media platforms to browse and inform purchase decisions, with Gen Z shoppers more than twice as likely as millennials to use Snapchat (54 percent versus 38 percent for younger and 22 percent for older millennials), according to one report. About two-thirds of younger consumers are eager to use visual search. That compares to 38 percent who are willing to try voice-activated ordering.
And retailers are following the desires expressed by those consumers, even when it comes to in-store shopping. By 2021, some 75 percent of retailers will have invested in cameras and video analytics to improve customer experiences online and inside physical shops.
The Amazon and Snap deal, as big as the potential may be for retail, is only part of the move further into visuals for eCommerce and brick-and-mortar shopping.