Once upon a time, an empty Google search bar promised all of the wonder and convenience of finding virtually anything you could possible want online. But in a rush to keep up with the digital times, retail sacrificed much of the “magic” of discovery in a laser focus on perfecting the moment when desire morphs into “your order is on its way.”
In an effort to right the retail ship, now brands and merchants are focusing their efforts on making online shopping a bit less binary and a lot more meaningful, said Amy Vener, leader of the retail vertical strategy for 250-million-member social site Pinterest, which is expected to file for an initial public offering with a valuation as high as $12 billion early this year. Speaking at the PSFK Future of Retail conference last week, Vener noted that Pinterest is one company helping retailers and brands inspire consumers via “taste graphs,” or ideas relevant to their particular aesthetic and interests, thanks in large part to computer vision and machine learning.
Unlike their predetermined intent when preparing to type in a Google search, “consumers come to Pinterest with an open mind,” Vener noted, adding that 97 percent of people’s searches on the platform are unbranded. Though largely undecided from the moment they turn to Pinterest for ideas, 90 percent credit the pinning platform for influencing their ultimate purchase.
Pinterest might have once been discussed as a competitor to the likes of Facebook, but its real utility is in fueling discovery and desire—and contributing to the myriad new consumer touchpoints retailers and brands are scrambling to meet and monetize.
“People expect retailers to be in a space that they’re maybe not quite ready to be,” Vener said of consumer interest in transacting in non-traditional places.
Harry Chemko, co-founder and CEO of microservices software firm Elastic Path, expects retailers in 2019 to get on board with this new “commerce everywhere” mentality, he told Sourcing Journal at NRF’s Big Show this month, and deploy so-called “headless” commerce that turns just about every digital touchpoint into a potential buy button.
With touchpoints proliferating and consumer expectations always on the upswing, Nextail CEO Joaquin Villalba believes the industry truly embraces the transition to agile retail this year as competition increases in an already cutthroat environment. The Spanish entrepreneur, who founded the inventory optimization firm after a long stint with Inditex, told Sourcing Journal that brands like Italian luxury house Versace are seeing the benefit of shifting inventory from one store to another based on accurate demand forecasting.
He also expects to see retail embracing the showroom concept, but instead of being zero-inventory locations that must ship every in-store purchase, they’ll have stock on hand of the products most likely to sell.
Fallout from consumer’s unquenchable appetite for online buying is seen in the e-commerce warehouses where robots like the ones on offer from Locus Robotics serve as companions to their human counterparts, ferrying goods to people and racking up step-savings for workers who spend the bulk of their day on their feet.
With unemployment levels persistently low, e-commerce fulfillment centers just might have to go all-in on autonomous robots in 2019, Locus’ director of marketing communications Kary Zate told Sourcing Journal. Locus, which serves customers like Dick’s Sporting Goods and describes apparel as among its most important verticals, hands out Bluetooth badges to some warehouse workers that track their productivity, enabling management to correct any productivity-draining habits, Zate noted.
That emphasis on productivity falls in line with projections for continued e-commerce growth, which will further strain warehouse capacity. And with new ways of discovery products, like the Google Lens app or a similar feature in the Pinterest app, companies servicing e-commerce will remain in high demand.
Pinterest’s Vener describes smartphone cameras as “your next keyboard,” adding that “visual search is where it’s at for retail.” Brands from Forever 21 and its Donde partnership to Amazon and its deployment of a visually oriented method of browsing categories like women’s footwear confirm this industry interest in a new way of interacting with products.
Pinterest is putting the power of its 175 billion pins across 4-billion “human curated” boards to work with its camera-based visual search tool that sees users snapping a photo of a garment they like—say a leather moto jacket—coupling that with a text search for “night out looks,” and then browsing relevant outfits showing how to wear and pair a product they may already own. It’s almost as if Pinterest is taking on the role of personal shopper, Vener said.
Though the fairytale seasonal windowfronts of urban flagship stores still capture consumer imaginations, the days of the department store serving as the broad-spectrum sources of inspiration are long gone, Vener noted, and Pinterest is stepping in to fill that void. The “pinspiration” platform is about “helping people pivot from ‘I love that look’ to ‘where can I buy it?’” she added, “and turning them into shopping opportunities.”