Retailers looking to engage tech-savvy millennials and Gen Z consumers are quickly doubling down on their efforts to offer more visual content and enhance the discoverability of their products and services. The need for fast, visual-based search systems is filtering into the mainstream, with Google recently revamping its Image tool to include a new user interface that allows shoppers to compare product images.
Lihi Pinto Fryman, co-founder and chief marketing officer for visual AI software-as-a-service (SaaS) company Syte, stated that advanced learning tools like AI can enable such experiences, making the overall process more seamless and user-friendly.
“Millennials [see] hundreds, sometimes thousands, of images [on] their mobile [phones] every single day, and we wanted to allow them to use those images to interact with their favorite retailers, brands [and] shops,” she said.
Syte uses AI-powered visual technology to scan product images and provide end users with results closest to the screenshots or photos they sent to the retailer.
“[Users do not] have to explain what they’re looking for, or what made them fall in love with that item,” Fryman explained. “All they need to do is upload an image and find their inspiration [on the site].”
She recently spoke with PYMNTS about why visual search is becoming critically important for retailers, and how AI plays a key role in the development of those search tools.
AI and the Rising Importance of Visual Shopping
Syte provides retailers, including Marks & Spencer and Conforama, with visual AI technology that allows them to move away from text-based search experiences to ones that rely more heavily on images. As Fryman noted, this can significantly change the customer experience, as shoppers are no longer required to narrow their searches with terms and filters. Instead, they can use this software to simply share an image with the retailer.
Users can screenshot products found on Instagram, Pinterest or similar social media apps. These images can be uploaded with Syte’s camera tool, which uses AI technology to display visually similar products on retailers’ platforms.
“It might not be the exact same product, because maybe it’s something that an influencer is wearing and [it] costs $5,000, but it will give the retailer a chance to show all of the similar-looking items within [its] collection,” Fryman said. “It’s really connecting the [product] inspiration from social with the retailer’s collection.”
A survey conducted last year found that 62 percent of millennials prefer visual search over other search methods. The next major challenge for retailers will be to provide such tools while also maintaining more traditional search tools in the meantime.
Visual AI has a role to play in text-based searches as well, Fryman noted. The technology can be utilized to recognize icons for colors, sizes and shapes. “Deep tagging” allows retailers to better categorize the content for the end user, as it assigns each item searchable tags such as color, design and product material.
Visual AI technology can also connect online and offline experiences. Online shoppers expect to have the same digital conveniences in store as on the web, and may want to quickly search stores’ inventories. Visual AI could offer such a solution, easing transactions for clerks who previously had to remember what was in stock.
“Think about a tablet that is placed inside a brick-and-mortar store,” Fryman said. “The [salespeople] in the store, sometimes they don’t know [if an item is in stock] or they’re too busy. They don’t know everything that is available in the store at any given moment, especially for large retailers. Imagine that you can go into a store, upload any image that you see on social, for example, into [its] tablet, [which] will show you if [it has] similar looking items available in that store. … So, it’s really connecting you, again, all through images, to the products that you want in real time."
The Millennial Influence on the Future of Retail
The importance and popularity of visual search will continue to grow as millennials and Gen Z consumers age and gain more spending power.
“We’ve gotten used to searching textually, because that was what was available for us, but I think that voice and visual together will become the next way of searching,” Fryman said. “We live in a visual world, we live in our phones and we see images all of the time and we interact with images – especially the younger generations. That will be the way that [they] interact and search for what they want [in the future].”
Visual AI and search also has the potential to pair with other technologies, like virtual reality (VR), moving forward. A future in which consumers can search for clothes, use VR to see items on their bodies and make purchases all within minutes may not be far off. All that remains is to see which retailers will get there first.