Retailers and brands continuously think about ways to improve the shopping experience and eliminate all possible friction before actual purchase. With visual search tools, they have a new instrument at their disposal. Similar to voice search, it eases and quickens the search process. However, as visual search tools align the unique characteristics of the physical world with the frictionless character of the digital world, they have more to offer than simply a new easy and quick way of shopping.
In the past, people went to a store and looked around to find new products. Maybe they would ask a store clerk, who would help them find the desired product. Visual and voice search coexisted peacefully in our average product discovery. Digitization has brought interesting changes to the way we search for products. The rise of e-commerce caused the unbundling of search and entering keywords (text search) became the new normal. Although most shopping is still done in physical locations, 87% of all product searches begin with digital channels. Conducting online pre-purchase research is common for almost all products, with groceries as the main exception. For around two decades, text search has dominated this online landscape. For the last couple of years, search behavior in retail has been slowly changing. In addition to text search, voice assistants have become a customer touchpoint for product search and product information. It started with mobile assistants such as Siri and now smart home speakers are starting to cleverly integrate the shopping experience into daily habits (e.g. purchase new groceries while cooking, order new socks while dressing). Compared to text search, we interact with voice search engines in a more conversational way. In this regard, they seem to function as a sort of virtual store clerk (e.g. asking if store X has a bigger size, whether there are discounts or what the openings hours are, etc.). Despite these differences between text and voice search, the underlying principle is the same: language.
In the past two years, visual search has slowly entered the stage. In a certain way, we could understand visual search as an extension of text search and voice search, reducing even more friction in the customer journey by reducing the time between seeing and buying. However, this could be misleading, as we would be overlooking the fundamental difference between visual search and text/voice search.
People undertaking a visual search don’t have to know a name or word, they only need to recognize or identify an object. Therefore, the different forms of search create disparate user experiences. Its nonverbal nature makes visual search more intuitive and inclusive. As we have written before, images are able to communicate rich meaning in split seconds and show us nuances that are difficult to capture in keywords. How to describe an item or a style is often difficult, causing a lot of friction in online product discovery. Visual search “returns” to immediate shopping experiences, common before the digital era, by eliminating mediation through language. However, unlike before, visual search is now linked to a digital world.
Let’s begin with the downside of this disintermediation of language. In addition to lacking the precision and clarity of language, visual search is limited to objects “here and now”. Making an abstraction of concepts such as “the weather” is difficult, if not impossible (e.g. pointing at a cloud and hoping for a weather forecast will leave us disappointed, as the search will necessarily lead to an examination of this cloud by computer vision).
However, there is also an upside to this. If we dive a little deeper into the “here and now” characteristic of visual search, we’ll find some interesting qualities. Customer journeys often begin with things that attract us for reasons we don’t know and that aren’t easily captured in phrases. In the physical realm, we are continuously inspired, attracted by certain items and moved by people we look up to. However, the brick-and-mortar of the physical world is bounded in its capacity to respond to this. Stores are limited in flexibility and personalization, and finite in their supply and offerings. Social media has been proven to copy some physical social dynamics to digital words. Not being subject to the boundaries of the physical world, social commerce on platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram seem to be the logical outcome of this. However, the online competition for our attention is fierce, especially when it comes to smaller brands. Moreover, digital worlds often exhibit herd behavior and social media influencers are criticized for a lack of authenticity. Ecommerce and social commerce seem unable to fully replicate the unique qualities of the physical world. This incongruity of both worlds has been a challenge to retailers for years. Visual search tools might have some answers to this. More than text search and voice search, visual search tools create a convenient and natural “bridge” between the finite and unique “here and now” and the frictionless and infinite digital realm. With visual search tools, the distance between physical inspiration and digital gratification becomes almost nonexistent. Every point in the physical world becomes a possible starting point for the customer journey.