Philip Ellis
News & Views
How visual search is transforming retail

ASOS is the latest retailer to incorporate visual search into its mobile commerce offering. Users of the clothing company’s iOS app will now be able to search for garments and accessories using pictures uploaded directly from their Camera Roll, making it easier than ever to find specific items that they’ve seen while browsing the web, or out window shopping. Think of it as Shazam for images.

It makes sense that ASOS is working on refining its ecommerce capabilities on mobile, considering over 80 per cent of its traffic in the UK currently comes through mobile devices. “We know this is where our customers are and it’s how they interact with us every day,” says Andy Berks, digital product director at ASOS. “We are always looking for ways that are mobile native to make their experience even better.”

The introduction of visual search at ASOS, a fast fashion company, indicates the growing ubiquity of this technology in online retail. Last month, eBay unveiled two computer vision features which would similarly aid users in conducting accurate product searches on the platform; Image Search, which uses the phone’s camera and saved photos to find products, and Find It On eBay, which allows users to search images from social media.

“Moments of shopping inspiration can come at any time, whether you’re walking down the street or browsing your social media feed,” says eBay vice-president Mohan Patt. (At present, Image Search and Find It On eBay are still in beta mode, and are expected to roll out in the autumn.)

Pinterest is also finding ways to bring machine vision to its users, following its newly clarified positioning as a place for “visual discovery.” Visual search tool Lens is now a core part of its iOS app. 85 per cent of Pinterest searches take place on mobile, and 72 per cent of Pinterest users say that they have discovered new brands and services through their searches.

And naturally, search giant Google is investing in its own Image Search capabilities, drawing on the functionality of Pinterest and providing users with additional information for specific images. When looking at images of food, for instance, it will connect you with recipes. If you’re browsing clothes, it will direct you to the appropriate shop front.

It may be some time before the accuracy of computer vision technology is sufficient to support a seamless retail experience. But with leading tech innovators Amazon, Google, IBM and Microsoft all working to bring it into the mainstream, we might not have to wait too long.

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