Mobile visual search unlocks m-commerce

Mobile visual search capabilities have been cropping up in retailers' apps with regularity—Neiman Marcus expanded their mobile search feature just last week—for good reason: the feature will likely play a big role this coming holiday as shoppers turn to smartphones in droves.

Basically visual search utilizes one of the most popular features of a smartphone, the camera, and lets shoppers take a picture of something they like, find the exact item or a similar product, and then buy it.

       Visual search on shopping app Craves, powered by Slyce

Snap.Find.Buy. That's what Neiman Marcus has named the feature.

"Similar to industry trends, Neiman Marcus customers use of mobile devices is skyrocketing," Wanda Gierhart, chief marketing officer at Neiman Marcus told FierceMobileRetail. "As a result, mobile is very important to us. Because of the small screen on mobile phones, it's critical we make the browsing and shopping process as seamless as possible."

Visual search is more than just a new variation on the bar code scanner. In its most popular form, visual search lets a shopper take a photo of something they like and then finds it for them. But the search doesn't just attempt to find the exact item, it can find the closest similar item if that product is not available.

The technology can also turn the pages of a catalog or magazine into shoppable content, as Target did for the September issue of Elle magazine with a series of visual search enabled ads.

And perhaps most enticing for retailers is that visual search technology can digitize a paper coupon or deliver a discount for a photographed product or a similar item. Slyce, a company that delivers the visual search technology used in many retail apps, recently purchased SnipSnap and launched a new product for retailers called Snap-to-Coupon that does just that.

  Digital coupon app SnipSnap

"There are different use cases for different retailers," said Mark Elfenbein, president and CEO of Slyce.   

But is there an ROI? Not yet, according to experts. The technology is too new.

"Most of our customers are not looking for ROI, but for user engagement or loyalty," Elfenbein said. "There are just completely different metrics at this point."

It's also too new to yield measurable results.

"Our [oldest] customer is Neiman Marcus, which launched Nov. 1, 2014. It's still in the nascent stages," Elfenbein said. "We only have a full year in the marketplace, so by the fourth quarter of next year we'll have more [information]."

JCPenney, Macy's and Target are also using the technology in one form or another. Slyce has also created its own mobile-only boutique called Craves, featuring a variety of retailers, including Yoox, Nasty Gal, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord and Taylor, Neiman Marcus, ASOS, Mango, Singer22, Luisaviaroma, Forzieri, Silver Jeans and Coach.

"The theoretical potential is huge," said Jim Okamura, managing partner, Okamura Consulting. "It's still somewhat early on in terms of the utility of visual search. We, too, want to see the proof case and more evidence of the lift it is going to give."

The technology works great with shoes, Okamura points out. A shopper just captures the silhouette and the technology finds a similar one. How well it works in other categories remains to be seen. In fact, Neiman Marcus tested the feature with shoes and handbags first, but the wider rollout to other categories is too new to assess.

Of course there's a learning curve for everyone involved. Shoppers are unfamiliar with the technology and it can take a significant marketing campaign just to let them know about the feature. One of the biggest barriers, however, may well be the retail environment itself.

In-store connectivity is still an issue in many locations. It's not unusual for a retailer to offer free Wi-Fi, but also experience intermittent outages or dead zones, and cellular signals are often hard to come by.

It can also be difficult to get employees on board with new customer-facing initiatives. 

One Slyce retail customer trained all its store managers on the internal app and had them use it before rolling out to shoppers, according to Elfenbein. Neiman Marcus sales associates are encouraged to have shoppers take a photo of an out of stock item using visual search in the store, which helps familiarize customers with the feature.

"We're not able to  influence everyone we work with, but there's a willingness," Elfenbein said. "Because they see the future of this."

That future may become clearer quite soon. Mobile visual search could play a prominent role in the upcoming holiday season. Many large retailers are making catalogs and circulars shoppable, waiting to see if consumers will use images to inform purchases.

The next step for retailers will be mining the data that mobile visual search collects, Okamura noted.   

"This is one of those things that has potential to trickle across the organization," he said. 

Data gleaned from visual search could be more valuable than making the sale, acquiring customers, or winning their loyalty. It's also another story.

*This story originally appeared in FierceRetail's sister publication, FierceMobileRetail.

Related stories:
Neiman Marcus CMO Wanda Gierhart talks visual search
Neiman Marcus expands Snap.Find.Shop visual search
JCPenney adds visual search
Macy's betting on QR code revival and image recognition
Toys R Us adds visual search