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Q&A: What the Instagram Generation and Visual Search Mean for Fashion Retail

­­Social media and a see-now/buy-now/wear-now culture are putting pressure on brands and retailers to deliver what their customers want—and quickly.

Shoppers accustomed to scrolling through Instagram for “style inspo” want buying the looks they see on influencers, celebrities and other cool kids to be as easy as a tap or two. And as more fashion houses follow in the footsteps of Tommy Hilfiger and others in making their collections available straight from the runway, many consumers who can’t afford high-end price points go from catwalk to computer to search for similar, budget-friendly, trend-right looks.

Sites like image-centric Pinterest have trained consumers to arrange their interests by similarity, fueling the movement away from text-based search and fully toward visual discovery. It’s clear that consumer behavior is shifting and the shopping experiences they want must evolve along with them.

That’s partly what prompted co-founders Jessie Zeng (CEO), Sharon Qian (CTO) and Mo Zhou (chief strategy officer) to raise $5.4 million in funding ahead of their planned July launch of Choosy, what they bill as an “on-demand social shopping platform” where consumers can buy trending looks that are hot on sites like Instagram. They team realized they’d stumbled into a significant opportunity when they trialled their concept with a small collection of street styles inspired by model sisters Bella and Gigi Hadid—and everything reportedly sold out immediately.

“Being an active Instagram user myself, it was impossible to ignore the most frequently asked question posed time and time again on fashion posts: ‘Where can I buy this?’” Zeng said in a statement. “I came to the realization that most influencer and celebrity outfits were curated by a team of stylists sourcing from global luxury brands and were completely unaffordable for most people.”

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While Choosy’s approach is to leverage relationships with textile manufacturers in China to deliver influencer-inspired looks in as little as two weeks, the startup revolved around the concept that consumers want what they see on social. “I knew there had to be a way to take these popular silhouettes and make them available to shoppers everywhere at better prices,” Zeng said.

So what’s a brand or retailer to do, given that many members of the Instagram generation start their shopping journey on social? Those who aren’t acting on the rise of visual search could be at risk of being left behind.

Sourcing Journal caught up with Caitlin Crawford, head of business development for fashion tech startup Fashwell, a participant in the New York Fashion Tech Lab that leverages visual search technologies to help connect consumers with the brands, products and styles they love.

Sourcing Journal: Visual search seems to be really hot right now. What’s behind all of the interest?

Caitlin Crawford: Visual search has been getting a lot of media attention over the past year, especially since the two largest fashion retailers in Europe, Zalando and Asos, announced a visual search feature on their mobile apps. But all this hype is not unfounded. It’s been predicted that by 2020, 60 percent of all searches will be either image or voice based. This makes a lot of sense because images are a much more intuitive and effective communication tool. Imagine looking at a fashion influencer’s social media post, really liking the products in the image, and in order to shop them, all you have to do is upload a screenshot of the image to a brand’s app and the exact or very similar products are returned. It’s a lot faster and way more effective than typing in 10 different word combinations. Failed searches are one of the top causes for missed conversion opportunities, and that’s why visual search is such a valuable tool for both the brand and the user—everyone wins.

SJ: How can social media influencers benefit from Fashwell?

CC: Fashwell is a B2B operation and therefore doesn’t work directly with influencers. That said, there are still ways for them to benefit from our technology. Fashwell makes any image instantly shoppable and can be implemented into virtually any system, including social media platforms like Instagram, Pinterest and more. Once the Fashwell API is integrated, the fashion products in posts uploaded by influencers can be instantly and automatically tagged and linked to shoppable items—no work required from their end. Posts become more interactive and influencers can monetize their content.

SJ: Tell us about the demographics most interested in using Fashwell?

CC: From the consumer-facing perspective, Fashwell’s technology is interesting predominantly to online shoppers, whether they shop online religiously or only occasionally. This is because our technology streamlines the entire shopping process. It especially makes mobile shopping a lot easier and more effective, for instance through Visual Search, which seamlessly bridges the gap between images and inspiration on mobile and opportunities to shop. We also enable and automate a lot of smaller online shopping features that are often taken for granted, but which in reality make a huge impact on whether or not a purchase is made. For instance, our tech can recommend visually similar alternatives to out-of-stock products as well as suggest complete outfits based on a single product.

SJ: Reports indicate that e-commerce is no longer the “cheaper alternative” to operating brick-and-mortar stores. How can Fashwell help brands and retailers improve their margins online?

CC: Fashwell’s products offer immense benefits for brands and retailers. By offering and also automating visual merchandising tasks, like product image tagging, similar product recommendations and outfit completion, our tech creates previously nonexistent cross- and upsell opportunities, enables easy visual browsing and product discovery, increases click-through rate and average order value, as well as boosts overall site conversion. Visual Search on its own already decreases the chances of failed searches and therefore also drop-offs and failed conversions.

SJ: Looking at the technology that powers Fashwell, how much R&D goes into building this kind of tech?

CC: Fashwell’s co-founders first developed the deep learning product recognition algorithm used in our technology four years ago. A lot of training is required to get technology to the level where Fashwell is currently. Since the very beginning, we made it a point to source a lot of high quality training data (fashion images) to teach the algorithms to see fashion the way a human does. And we’re constantly improving on this in order to ensure the most accurate results. In short, a lot of time, effort and love has been put into our technology. And we keep our tech cutting-edge by staying up to date on the developments and advancements in deep learning and applying that to our work.

SJ: How do you see fashion and e-commerce evolving in the future?

CC: All reports indicate that e-commerce will continue to dominate retail and eventually become the only way to shop. And this also applies to fashion. What will be most interesting for both of these spaces is the evolution and growth of mobile commerce. Adweek has predicted that of the $526 billion expected to be made in retail sales this year, 40 percent will take place on smartphones. We will enter a whole new era of retail as soon as shopping for fashion on mobile is a common practice. This requires not only tools like that offered by Fashwell, but also easier payment systems, and improved shipping and logistics—as well as delivery.