Nov 30, 20187 min read

How Visual Search Is Changing Online Shopping.

Fredrik Thambert headshot

by Fredrik Thambert

Visual search is one of the most important trends in e-commerce right now. When consumers can find products through a quick snap with their mobile camera, it opens up big possibilities for brands and retailers. Here's what you need to know and what you can do.

You see someone wearing a nice pair of shoes on the bus, or in your social media feed. You take a picture of them and… Boom! The same product appears on-screen with your size and the option to buy them straight away.

Does this sound like some kind of Utopia? Think again. Visual search is one of the hottest trends in e-commerce right now, and the technology to make it happen is already here.

The latest example is the partnership between Snapchat and Amazon. The social camera app is teaming up with the e-commerce giant in an effort to combine taking pictures with shopping in a mobile context. The new product, which initially is only available to a small number of US users‚ works like this:

  1. Scan a physical object or barcode with the Snapchat camera.
  2. A card appears with that item on a thumbnail image, paired with the price, reviews and availability on Amazon Prime.
  3. Tap on it and go directly to Amazon’s app or site to buy it.


Snap’s technology helps to determine what you’re scanning, while Amazon looks for unique identifying marks to find the right product. How does it work? It’s all possible due to advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology, which makes the process of matching pixels to products much quicker and more accurate.

What the revenue split looks like is confidential, but both companies see big potential in this cooperation. For Amazon, it means greater access to the young, tech-savvy audience who see mobile shopping as the norm. For Snapchat, adding this functionality means being able to cater for more of their users’ needs. According to Techcrunch, Snapchat wants its camera to become the new cursor, or “your point of interface between the real and digital worlds”. Shopping is, of course, a big part of that plan.

The deal is also of great importance for both companies because of another big trend they want to be a part of: Social commerce. People are spending more and more of their time on social media, and that’s where many of us find inspiration for our own purchases. So if we’re able to buy stuff like clothes, furniture, or even travel right where we hear about it, there is a far higher chance of us actually completing the purchase.

This is the reason why Pinterest has launched its Lens – a tool similar to Snapchat’s visual search – and Shop the Look Pins. The same goes for Instagram, whose goal is to become the premier social shopping location. The Facebook-owned app recently announced that it’s adding Shopping tags in Stories and a dedicated Shopping channel in the Explore section. There are also rumours that Instagram is working on a standalone app that is completely dedicated to e-commerce.

And while we in the West are busy talking about our own advances in technology, it’s already in commonplace in China. Back in 2014, Alibaba developed Pailitao, an app that allows users to search for items by taking photos of objects. Pailitao then automatically returns visually similar items on Taobao, the world’s biggest e-commerce website.

What does this mean for you as a merchant?

First of all, visual search and social commerce are here to stay. And these two consumer trends are only going to grow in importance. In a recent study by visual commerce AI company ViSenze, more than 70 percent of Millennial and Generation Z consumers said that if all digital content was shoppable, they would buy more online.

Secondly, it’s not only social media platforms that are trying to use this technology to their advantage. The global retailer Asos has added image search functionality to its fashion app, too. This enables users to find clothes and accessories by taking pictures and get matching results from the company’s database of 85,000 products. H&M and Forever 21 are two other brands that are working on similar technology. The logic behind it is obvious: by closing the gap between inspiration and buying, conversion rates rise.

What can you do?

Working with influencers is already a given for most companies that sell stuff online. This way of marketing products will become increasingly important. Young people are forming relationships with social media personalities rather than with brands, which means influencer recommendations will be increasingly powerful. Millennials are, for example, 44 percent more likely to trust experts and 247 percent more likely to be influenced by blogs or social networking sites than older generations, according to a US study.

They’ll also convert into sales through shopping tags and visual search tools. More than 2 out of 3 Gen Z consumers are interested in purchasing via social media directly, according to global research by Accenture. In other words, you as a merchant need strong relationships with influencers that are relevant to your brand.

Investing in building your own visual search tool is an expensive venture. For most merchants, this won’t be a viable option. That’s why you’ll need to keep a close eye on what the industry leaders are doing in this space. Being a searchable option on the most commonly used platforms will be crucial. The lesson is, as always, to be where your customers are.

Once your product is selected, you must provide users with a webshop that is optimised for mobile shopping and provides a seamless purchasing experience. And as the internet becomes more visual, you need to do the same. Customers want to experience how products look and feel in real life. Remember that a picture is worth a thousand words. Our brains also process visual images far more quickly than text.

“Visual search technology bridges the gap between the convenience of online shopping and the rich discovery experience of traditional retail by enabling our customers to search for clothing in the same way they think about it – using visuals, not words,” said Alex Ok, president of Forever 21, at the launch of their search product earlier this year.

Why this is important to you

Right now, the fashion industry is at the forefront of the development of visual search tools. If you’re selling clothes or accessories, be ready to take advantage of this opportunity in the near future. This is also true for categories like home decor, sports and leisure.

But as consumer behaviour is changing, an increasing number of other products and services will be bought online. That’s why you need to start thinking about how consumers will find your products, regardless of what category you’re in. Search as we know it today is rapidly changing towards becoming more image (and voice) driven. How will you inspire consumers in that context?