How AI Is Transforming the Shopping Experience Based on the Images Consumers Look at Online

Retailers add artificial intelligence to their marketing mix

Thanks to AI-image search, shoppers may one day simply take a picture of a what they want and immediately have options.
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Trunk Club, an apparel subscription service owned by Nordstrom, has increased Pinterest engagement by more than 100 percent in recent months by embedding artificial intelligence into its digital-images marketing. AI-image search is central to its ambitions of building a data-science model that drives highly relevant product offerings to consumers across the social web. More broadly, the effort speaks to how AI search is quickly becoming the retail sector’s next big digital shopping experience.

“We are trying to understand how one pair of jeans plays out against another pair that was released in another season,” explained Justin Hughes, vp of product development and design at Trunk Club. “We want to get really granular and understand what really works.”

Retailers are excited about AI because the latest smartphones have created a Snapchat-inspired social world where consumers are starting to see “the camera as the keyboard,” added Ron Palmeri, CEO of Layer, the tech company powering Trunk Club’s search capabilities.

With over 20 different styles of Vans, you could wear a pair with just about anything. #trunkclub

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It’s still early days, but AI-image search is based on digital platforms running machine learning that increasingly understands consumers’ interests based on the images they look at online and the social pages that they “like.” Palmeri said he imagines a time when a shopper takes a picture of a desired item and rather than typing in a keyword to find it, they upload the image to a search engine that spits back a number of similar items at a range of price points or even items customized to a specific price point, if the user has integrated financial data into the model.

“The camera is able to take in so much more information than text or voice,” he said. “Snapchat figured that out early on and we are starting to see more people lean on images to share how they’re feeling or what they want.”

Burberry, too, is delving into AI search, recently gaining major traction for its Cat Lashes mascara on Pinterest, where users received a custom board after answering a survey. More than 30,000 new boards and 1 million pins were created for Cat Lashes.

While Burberry’s collaboration with Pinterest was a success (the retailer declined to comment), Jon Gibs, chief data officer of L2, cautioned that it may not be easy to replicate. “One of the biggest challenges you could see with a campaign like this has nothing to do with the AI itself,” he said, “but the ability for a brand to create the appropriate amount of content needed for unique user experiences.”

Like what you see? Shop this look and take your living space from 💤 to 🔥 #mywestelm

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At West Elm, the furnishings brand has implemented Pinterest and the Clarifai API to provide recommendations to shoppers. The idea was to provide customers who couldn’t go to the store the ability to take advantage of the brand’s Style Finder service, explained Luke Chatelain, West Elm’s vp of innovation. “From a consumer standpoint, early user feedback has been super positive,” he noted. “It’s a way for us to make it possible for all users to quickly attain personalized results that matches inspiration found on Pinterest to West Elm products they can actually shop regardless of where they are located or time of day.”

The technology also can make upselling easier, and make it simpler to find and recommend items customers might not even know they need, said Kristin Shevis, chief customer officer at Clarifai. Shevis also sees a strong potential for luxury retailers to crack down on counterfeiting on secondhand resale sites.

While all of this may seem intuitive, many marketers are struggling to catch up. Only 11 percent of brands are AI experts, per Forrester Research, while over half fall into the “novice” or “laggard” category.

Because online retail is so image based, retailers recognize AI is a key ingredient in the marketing mix. For startup sports apparel and eyewear brand Roka, using AI image search is one way to remain competitive. “As a digitally native consumer brand, keeping up with and staying ahead on new tech developments has allowed us to outmaneuver much larger players in our space,” said CEO Rob Canales.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 11, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.