Why the future of retail belongs to visual discovery

| by Elliot Maras
Why the future of retail belongs to visual discovery

Image courtesy of ShopTalk.

Ben Silbermann believes visual discovery is just beginning at retail.

This is an exciting time to be in retail, according to Ben Silbermann, co-founder and CEO of Pinterest. Not because of what is happening with artificial intelligence, virtual reality and other technology, but because of the power of visual discovery that is just starting to unfold.

Pinterest, a mobile app that lets users discover the web largely through images and videos, allows consumers to visualize what they want to buy. Because of this, the technology is destined to play an even bigger role in retailing, Silbermann said during his keynote presentation at the recent ShopTalk conference in Las Vegas.

Visualization is not, in itself, something new, Silbermann explained. He recollected his first shopping experiences in the 1980s and 1990s visiting malls in his hometown, Des Moines, Iowa.

"The mall wasn't just a place to shop; it was a place to be," he said. Shoppers looked for new clothes, heard new music, tried new foods and read new books.

"The whole experience was designed (so) that you didn't necessarily know what was in there by the time that you walked in," he said. "All of that is by design." The merchandise, the attendants and the layout of the mall itself was all engineered to help you discover new things, he added.

The smartphone brings change

What's new is that it is now possible for consumers to make such discoveries on smartphones. The problem, however, is that most people are not aware that tools exist to simplify the discovery process.

"If you don't know what you're looking for, or if you're overwhelmed by choice, the abundance of online shopping presents a huge problem," Silbermann said. "They come to Pinterest because it's one of the few places that instead of telling people what you're looking for in words, you can browse through millions of possibilities and select things that you know you love."

If a shopper sees something they want on Pinterest, they can save it into a collection. Users can organize images on Pinterest into collections that represent their tastes and their future. Visual discovery lets people annotate all of this data and organize it in a way that was not previously possible. There are collections of everything from fancy cupcakes to tattoos. 

"People make these collections because they're planning for something in the future of their life," he said. "Pinterest is the productivity app for planning all of your dreams."

This is important, he said, because people's "vision boards" become their "reality boards."

Silbermann presented pictures of customers from throughout the world holding items they found on Pinterest for the first time. More than 200 million people already use Pinterest monthly. Nine out of 10 say when they see things on Pinterest, it helps them decide what to buy, Silbermann said.

"It motivates them because what we present is visual," he said. "I think that we're undergoing a fundamental transformation in how we consume media."

When the Internet began, it was text based, Silbermann noted. People entered text into the Internet search box. This, however, began to change nine or 10 years ago with the emergence of the smartphone. 

"For the first time, billions of people on the planet have a high resolution camera in their pocket," he said. "They can see instead of typing."

"It changes the way that you express yourself professionally," he said regarding the smartphone. "We've gone from blogs to video stories. It changes the way that you talk to your family and friends. And it's changing the way you discover everything online."

The power of visual discovery

Instead of having to come up with the vocabulary to describe something, a smartphone allows users to simply select from a set of pictures.

"When you give people the tools to express their tastes, without requiring that they have the vocabulary to describe it professionally, all of a sudden I discover that I do have great taste," Silbermann said.

"What's exciting (about visual discovery online) is how we can do it at enormous scale."

Pinterest offers a feature called "taste graph," which organizes things a person is looking for. This is important because when there are hundreds of millions of options a user needs help selecting the few things that are right for you. The taste graph helps not only individuals, but businesses, he explained.

The company is expanding its ads to let retailers upload their entire catalog and integrate their products into taste graphs, creating a way to help consumers find what they want. Products are presented in a way that lets people journey from inspiration to purchase.

"People don't want to see products on a white background," he said. "They want the emotional engagement of seeing an outfit, of matching how will I look in that outfit? From there, we can work backwards to find the products they truly love."

New tools emerge

Pinterest recently introduced a tool called "Lens" that lets consumers use the camera in their Pinterest app to discover ideas inspired by objects they see out in the real world.

Lens allows users to take a photo and use it to search for other things on Pinterest. For example, a user can take a picture of a jacket in their closet and see how to style it for a particular season. This enables the possibility of having a retail experience any place a consumer happens to be with their smartphone.

"Someday people are going to see their cameras not just as a device to record and share their memories," Silbermann said. "They're going to see it as a way to query the visual world around them."

While visual discovery will revolutionize retailing, Silbermann believes this change is in its early stage. People will increasingly want to discover things through pictures instead of words. 

"If you build tools to let people express this, you'll unlock a tremendous amount of value," he said.

The future of personalizaton is not just looking at a backlog of what others bought in the past, he said, but understanding a user's taste at a granular level.

"Whatever you see will be a jumping off point to what you can do," he said.

Topics: Assisted Selling, Consumer Behavior, Customer Experience, Display Technology, Marketing, Merchandising, Online Retailing, Technology

Elliot Maras

Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.

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