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Ecommerce: The rise of Image Recognition Technology

Want it, snap it, find it - picture-led shopping apps that allow customers to search by taking images and submitting them to the app are taking off, and retailers are queuing to sign up.

Image search technology is turning heads in the ecommerce world, with etailers increasingly attracted by its ability to funnel browsing shoppers onto their sites.

The technology taps two key trends: firstly, the migration of sales onto mobile devices, with 34% of online sales in the first quarter of 2014 being made on phones, according to Interactive Media in Retail Group; and secondly, the rise of picture-sharing social media sites such as Instagram.

Shoppers can start their online search for clothing or accessories by simply taking a picture of the garment, colour, print or texture they like. This photo is then uploaded to an app that searches an inventory of products to find the exact same item, similar products or items in those colours, prints or textures.

With hundreds of retailers now accessing the technology, there is the potential to speed up and simplify online shopping, with consumers able to quickly mine retailers’ inventories for very specific items.

Cortexica’s FindSimilar for Fashion is one such technology. Launched last October, it claims to “bridge the gap from images to inventory” by providing the image search technology to retailers and retail platforms including Berlin-based etailer Zalando and fashion app Style Thief, launched last month. It enables people to take photos of others’ clothing to find and buy similar items.

Iain McCready, chief executive of Cortexica, tells Drapers the technology takes up to 1,000 key information points from a picture before identifying and matching it. “Fashion is very visual, so describing something you are trying to search for online is very difficult; this is a way around that,” he says. “People also often don’t just want an exact match, but something similar, so they could end up buying something they didn’t know they wanted.”

Zalando launched the technology via its German app two weeks ago to build on the fact that more than 40% of its business comes from mobile purchases. Carsten Ernst, product manager for mobile apps at the etailer, reveals that without advertising the new feature “a couple of thousand people, both men and women” have already tried it on the iPhone platform. But because it is so new, its direct impact on sales has yet to be worked out.

“It’s important that [a mobile app is] more than just a catalogue of product and it’s interactive,” says Daniel Schneider, head of onsite customer journey at Zalando. “My expectation is there will be people who use it as a search engine and will buy from it, and others who will use it more for fun. But it will lead to increased engagement with the app even if it doesn’t convert, so people will keep coming back.”

Third-party apps, including Snap Fashion and Asap54, have been specifically designed to use image search technology to source items across hundreds of retailers’ websites. One of the first of its kind when it launched in September 2012 was Snap Fashion. This and spin-off Snap ColourPop, which launched in November and allows searches via pictures of colour swatches and prints, have attracted 300,000 users across the apps and website. The two platforms have more than 170 retailers signed up, spanning the price spectrum from New Look to Burberry.

Taking this a step further, Snap Fashion also tied up with Westfield for its EditMe campaign, launched in March, which enables shoppers to upload photos of themselves and be sent ideas from retailers’ latest or incoming collections that are available from stores across Westfield’s malls.

Jenny Griffiths, chief executive and founder of London-based Snap Fashion, explains that using pictures to shop online is “a natural thing to do”. “When you are trying to type in searches on tiny keyboards … it’s frustrating, so people are now changing their behaviour,” she says.

The Asap54 app, launched in February, has been downloaded about 300,000 times and has nearly 200 retailers signed up including Topshop, J Crew,, Harrods and Net-A-Porter. The app provides a personal shopper service, so if the technology fails to find suitable results, a team of personal shoppers will scour the web for alternatives.

Founder Daniela Cecilio explains the technology “makes the whole world shoppable and means you can take inspiration from anywhere”.

Both apps take commission for sales when shoppers are directed onto retailers’ transactional websites, ranging from 5% to 20%, depending on the retailer.

Nicolas Pickaerts, head of ecommerce, says the benefit is that apps like Asap54 “allow you to access fashion that visually inspires you, at the tap of a button”. A spokeswoman for Topshop, which has signed up to both Asap54 and Snap Fashion, adds: “So many people want to shop from image-focused apps [such as Instagram] but they don’t have that capability.”

The technology is still evolving. FindSimilar is working to enable shoppers to search a whole look, so separates can be sourced from just one picture; this is expected to be available Next year. Searches using video will also be possible by March 2015.

For both Zalando and Asap54, the next steps are to launch Android versions of the apps and to roll them out across more territories, including greater localisation of products available, which both hope to do before the end of the year. Snap Fashion also plans to launch Snap for Men before Christmas.

Readers' comments (3)

  • Dear Drapers, are you suggesting that 34% of online CLOTHING sales have been made via a mobile phone in the first quarter or 2014? It would be good to be clear... otherwise this article is very misleading.

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  • To Anonymous above: Mobile accounted for 34% of UK e-retail sales, not just clothing. Here is the link to IMRG press release

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  • Thank you for the link. So not clothing and I see it says smartphones and tablets. This article states phones...

    Would be good to get Capgemini to share the equivalent figure for clothing specifically. Otherwise it continues to be misleading to quote in Drapers...

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