What is Visual Search: How Retailers Can Use it to Enhance the Customer Experience

Visual search has been around for a few years, but the technology is just starting to come into its own as a tool to help retailers boost their customer experience.

Shopping, with the rise of mobile and multichannel retail, is ripe for new and innovative ways to make it easier for customers to find products they need. That’s why the popularity of visual search has skyrocketed over the past few years, with one of the most popular apps, Pinterest Lens, reporting 100% year-over-year user growth—and accounting for up to 600 million visual searches monthly.

Pinterest Lens, which originally launched in 2017, allows users to search their smartphone camera to snap a pic offline and then find related Pins on the social platform.

Pinterest Lens visual search | Shopify Retail blog
Image: Pinterest Newsroom

Below, we’ll look at what the popularity of visual search means for retailers, and what lessons can be learned from those who are using visual search best.

What is visual search?

Before we get into implementing visual search to drive a better experience for your customers, let’s define visual search.

When customers undertake a visual search, they look for a product with a photo or other image instead of the keywords normally used in search engines. Shoppers can take a picture of something they want to buy, upload it to the visual search engine of their choice—such as Google Images or Pinterest Lens—and immediately see visually similar items available to purchase.

For example, at a 2017 runway show, Tommy Hilfiger introduced an app that allowed attendees to snap photos of items being modeled and upload them to a visual search engine that then presented those same items for sale.

As fashion site Glossy describes visual search, it’s like Shazam for seamlessly finding “the designer of a jacket worn by a fellow patron at a convenience store or a purse seen on an advertisement on the train.”

Benefits of visual search for retailers

In the retail world, visual search has the power to make the shopping experience that much easier and quicker for customers—and that can yield some serious benefits for retailers and store owners.

Customers who have an easier time finding the products they’re looking for are already one step closer to making a purchase.

Let’s look at some of the other key benefits for retailers who implement a visual search engine.

A shortened path from search to conversion

The key difference between visual search and keyword search is the former makes it easier for customers to take a mental picture and turn it into an actual product available for purchase without having to think about the right keyword phrase or sifting through thousands of almost-there search engine results.

The easier it is for a customer to the product they’re looking for, the less friction there is in achieving a sale. In fact, studies show that visual search leads to checkout twice as quickly as text-based search.

Integrating online and offline shopping experiences

One thing is clear: customers increasingly want multichannel shopping experiences that make it effortless to move from brick-and-mortar store to website to mobile app to anywhere else they want to shop.

FURTHER READING: Learn how shifting to multichannel retail can help your business prosper.

Visual search is one of the best ways to integrate the online and offline shopping experiences you offer customers. It makes it easy for them to find a wider variety of products on your website and forges a sense of connection between your online store and your customers’ everyday lives in the physical world.

Less noise

There’s one big hurdle traditional in-store sellers have to jump: the noise of ecommerce. A simple web search can lead to hundreds of pages of nearly identical products, making for some stiff competition online.

Connecting your customers to a visual search engine ensures you cater the results to the products you have available.

This helps cut through the noise of online shopping and makes it easier for customers to make a purchasing decision. It also ensures they see specifically what you have to offer.

Capitalization of social proof and word of mouth

Social proof and word of mouth are your most effective marketers in today’s retail world, but they’re also tough to track and predict. It’s easy for a gulf to form between the products people see and hear about and your brand.

FURTHER READING: Learn more about how retailers can use social proof to bolster sales.

Word of mouth isn’t worth much if customers can’t figure out where that celebrity’s shoes came from or who made their favorite YouTube star’s go-to mascara. Visual search can help you bridge that gap by providing a direct connection between these favorite products and your brand.

Easy tracking and measuring of success

Visual search performance is something retailers can track and measure easily. If a customer uses visual search and goes on to buy that product (or a similar product), it’s easy to trace that sale back to visual search—even without a custom app or search engine.

Brands can see when shoppers click on visual search results, tell which styles they examined, and, most importantly, when they made a purchase. This means you can identify the specific products and product categories that consistently receive and convert on visual searches, making it easy to double down on efforts that drive results.

By monitoring traffic that comes from visual search engines (like Pinterest and Google) in Google Analytics, you can see how many shoppers click-through to product pages. Google Analytics also shows you conversions—both conversion rates and the dollar amount—so you can see exactly how many sales visual search drives.

How retailers are using visual search to enhance the customer experience

Now that you’re ready to jump into visual search, let’s look at how some major retailers have taken the leap and spearheaded perfect-use cases smaller stores can learn from.

Target

Target visual search | Shopify Retail blog
Image: Target

Target dove into visual search headfirst by integrating Pinterest’s visual search tool, Pinterest Lens, into its own mobile app. From inside a Target store, customers can snap a picture of any product and the app will pull up similar items. This makes it easier for customers to browse products they’re actually looking to buy, instead of Target’s entire extensive product catalog. It also allows customers to see a full lineup of options rather than just what’s available in that one store.

Visual search through Pinterest Lens also helps Target capitalize on the social network’s retail goldmine.

“For retailers, Pinterest is an opportunity to engage with customers earlier and more often, well before a transaction takes place,” says Amy Vener, head of Pinterest’s retail vertical strategy.

The takeaways:

  • Using Pinterest Lens means you don’t have to build your own visual search engine, making it easy to test the visual search waters.
  • By integrating Pinterest’s Save button into your website, you can tap into the platform’s popularity to make your products as easy to find as those of leading brands.

Forever 21

Forever 21 visual search | Shopify Retail blog
Image: Consumer Goods Technology

Forever 21’s approach to visual search is all about tapping into the way customers think about products and purchases—which often is more visual than verbal.

“Visual search technology bridges the gap between the convenience of online shopping and the rich discovery experience of traditional retail,” says Alex Ok, Forever 21 president.

To that end, Forever 21 combined visual search and targeted artificial intelligence (AI) to boost its ecommerce shopping experience. The initiative enabled customers to search for attributes (like dress length, shirt neckline, or color) instead of search terms. By combining AI, computer vision, and natural language processing, the retailer is able to offer more relevant, curated search results for shoppers.

Those results lead to higher sales, too. Retail Dive noted that “visual images … are more effective in engaging consumers and converting them into buyers than plain text.” Forever 21’s experience testing their visual search backs that up—with average purchase value jumping 20%.

The takeaways:

  • Audit the shift in experience and customer behavior that happens between your ecommerce and physical retail storefronts, then use visual search to bridge that gap.
  • Tailor your visual search strategy to the way your customers conceptualize and think about your products.

Neiman Marcus

Neiman Marcus visual search | Shopify Retail blog
Image: This Is Retail

Neiman Marcus took a similar approach to visual search, offering a tool within its mobile app that allows customers to snap a photo in-store and view similar products in the retailer’s online catalog.

Strong sales from visual searches, which initially was confined to women’s shoes and handbags, led the retailer to roll out the capability for its entire product lineup.

“Visual search removes hurdles, taking the customer directly from inspiration to gratification, says Wanda Gierhart, Neiman Marcus’s chief marketing officer.

The takeaways:

  • You don’t have to dive into visual search headfirst. Take a page from Neiman Marcus’s playbook and test out a visual search tool on a smaller subsection of your product catalog.
  • The line between online and offline shopping gets blurrier every day. Smart retailers are leading the charge to integrate the two and provide seamless multichannel shopping experiences.

Visual search creates a better customer experience

Leveraging ready-made visual search engines (like Pinterest Lens) means even the smallest retailers can test the visual search waters and learn to bridge the gap between in-person and ecommerce shopping.

Whether your brand is big or small, visual search is an accessible piece of retail technology that holds the potential to help you enhance your customers’ experience—and that’s worth testing out.

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