Forget a Thousand Words. Pictures Could Be Worth Big Bucks for Amazon Fashion

New image-based search functionality will likely boost sales

Amazon's AI-enabled StyleSnap lets customers use images to search for clothing.
Amazon

With the announcement of its AI-enabled StyleSnap feature, which allows customers to use images to search for clothing, Amazon joins platforms like Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, Google and Bing in marrying visual search and commerce.

Insiders say the nascent tool is still a work in progress, but they believe it will help Amazon capitalize on its strengths in fashion—which, like virtually every other product and service it offers, includes price, selection and convenience—and will help it compete with retailers like Walmart and Target.

To use StyleSnap, consumers upload images in the Amazon app, and it considers factors like brand, price and reviews to recommend similar items.

Image-based search is arguably a better fit than text for fashion in particular because, of course, a picture is worth a thousand words. “What Amazon has always been great for is if you know the name or identifier, [whatever you want to buy is] easy to find,” said Bryan Eisenberg, co-founder of the agency BuyerLegends and co-author of the book Be Like Amazon. “But when you’re looking for style, most people don’t have the language to explain these things. They’re using AI to take that [problem] away.”

And these new suggestions are an improvement over the endless results consumers had to scroll through previously, Eisenberg said. “If the AI can get close—not perfect, but close, and it will get better and better with more inputs—they can capture a good chunk of the [fashion] business,” he added.

But, relax, Anna Wintour—it’s a specific subset of fashion. “The majority of people go to the site just to buy the basics as they want things fast and affordable,” Amalgro said. “People don’t think of Amazon first when it comes to hottest brands or the latest looks.”

For instance, Eisenberg said, Amazon’s athletic line sells well, particularly among consumers looking for alternatives to pricier brands like Lululemon. “The people who buy this are not buying a $600 t-shirt,” Eisenberg said. “It’s the person looking to look like they’re wearing a $600 t-shirt for $25.”

And even though Manolo Almagro, managing partner at tech consulting firm Q Division, and Eisenberg both say the experience feels “clunky,” Eisenberg doesn’t think this will hinder its future potential.

"The experience is still clunky, but so was Alexa. They launch things clunky."
-Bryan Eisenberg, co-author, Be Like Amazon, on Amazon's image-based search functionality

“The experience is still clunky, but so was Alexa. They launch things clunky,” he said. “One of the things that makes it work so well is its ability to get things done. Where a lot of retailers focus on making absolutely seamless experiences, Amazon is … [putting] it out [rough, then consumers] start using it and they take the data and keep improving and improving. They’ll throw up anything against the wall to see how it works and finally put some gas on the fire to show that it’s working.”

And, like Alexa, they have to start somewhere in order to make customers comfortable with yet another new way to shop, he said. “We’ve never had these tools before. They’re training the customer long term this is an acceptable way to buy,” he added.

Even if the feature isn’t a category killer, it still has the potential to make millions.

“Right now, I still think it’s at the very early experimental stage. It’s hard to gauge how big it will be,” Eisenberg said. “My guess is it will bring them a bigger chunk—it’s not the most visible thing in the app yet. They may want to create a secondary app. That’s when you know they’re taking it super seriously as opposed to an experiment.”

For his part, however, Almagro said he thinks social commerce and experiences like The Drop will be more successful because they are more intuitive ways for customers to search for and share new style ideas.

Either way, David Hutchinson, national director of paid platform merchandising at digital marketing agency iProspect, said Amazon needs to get the word out.

“Do the public know about these great options? I would argue not enough,” he said. “So, I look forward to big [above-the-line, or mass media like TV, radio, print or out-of-home] campaigns promoting these.”