Technology to watch: Mobile visual search has IT implications

Mobile visual search is a trending topic. Retailers are adding the features to mobile apps; creating ad campaigns, catalogs and shoppable circulars; and promoting the technology via social media and with splashy press releases.

The technology may be up and coming, but it promises more than higher sales and shopper engagement. It promises new data sets.

Mobile visual search is being used in several ways, as I outlined in this story for our sister publication FierceMobileRetail. In its simplest form, the technology lets users snap a photo, find an item, and buy it.

Neiman Marcus, JCPenney, Target and Toys R Us are just a handful of the retail names now using mobile visual search in some form. Expect a flurry of announcements in the coming weeks as many more try to make Black Friday more mobile friendly with printed materials made shoppable via mobile devices.

The sales circular is still an important vehicle for promotion and visual search can add much more value. By letting shoppers snap a photo to find and buy an item, or add it a shopping list, the printed piece becomes a digital tool—and another digital footprint for shoppers to leave behind.

"Anecdotally, we've been hearing that it fits in very well with existing consumer behavior," said Jim Okamura, managing partner, Okamura Consulting. The feature assists in both site and Web searches, and using a camera to snap a photo of something to research and buy is already common shopper behavior. Visual search technology just makes that more actionable.

Mobile enhancements are priority for retailers, but where this particular feature will fall on that priority list is still unknown, Okamura noted. This holiday could be a significant test for the technology.

Processing the data and getting it to where it needs to be is the next step along the adoption curve.

"There is still a lot of blocking and tackling in optimizing for the mobile experience, the bells and whistles come after," he said. "This is not a separate workstream so much as it's part of the larger workstream."

Thus far, early adopters are just getting their feet wet, digitally speaking. Many have bigger issues to contend with—out of stocks for Target, associate scheduling at Walmart, a new CIO at Kohl's, to name a few. But if mobile visual search provides a measurable lift, expect it to land on IT's to-do list.

"This is one of those things that has the potential to trickle across the organization," Okamura said. "How does that data get back into the hands of the buyer and site merchandiser? Or back to marketing to write compelling copy? Or tag it for management to allow it to be found more easily? How will some of these new capabilities become part of an executive dashboard or even a tactical front-line dashboard for reporting.

"Something like this has the potential to really become a good indicator, and how that gets built into a team or individual KPIs could be a missing link in the cross channel influence." 

Currently, just a small fraction of consumers are engaging with mobile visual search. Shoppers are interacting with the feature roughly 3,000 times a day for retailers using visual search technology by Slyce, according to Slyce President and CEO Mark Elfenbein.

"We're not trying to take over the world at this point, but if you can get that something is being used thousands of times a day, there's enough statistically there, at this point, to show there's a significant trend moving toward visual search, generally speaking," he said.  

The first step is getting the technology and functionality in place, and that's already happening. This holiday will serve as something of a test. Getting the data back and to the right people will come next. -Laura