Fast-fashion brands are competing against each other for online marketshare, and visual search offers a way to gain ground.

Today, Forever 21 begins offering “Discover Your Style” on its web and mobile homepages through a partnership with visual search engine Donde Search. A shopper can click on icons representing features they want in apparel, specifying factors such as silhouette and color, to see corresponding results in Forever 21’s inventory.

This is an expansion of a pilot of the technology launched on the retailer’s mobile app in May, which was so successful at increasing conversions and average purchase value that the company decided to “fast track” its large-scale web integration.

Forever 21 president Alex Ok considers visual search one of the most important recent innovations in e-commerce. “Visual search bridges the gap between the convenience of online shopping and the rich discovery experience of traditional retail by enabling our customers to search for clothing in the same way they think about it — using visuals, not words,” Ok said, adding that he aims to develop “the world’s most intuitive omnichannel shopping experience.”

Donde founder and CEO Liat Zakay said that because the technology is “language agnostic,” it helps companies scale to global markets. In addition to the United States and Canada, Forever 21 currently operates in Europe, Japan, Korea and the Philippines.

“We are visual-centric, not text-based, so a user doesn’t have to question what ‘tunic’ or ‘cold-shoulder’ means,” said Jiwon Hong, CEO of visual search startup YesPlz. “It’s important to offer a smart and fun tool to help customers find their styles without getting annoyed.”

There are various manifestations of visual search, which generally refers to using an image, rather than words, to inform a search engine what you’re looking for. So, instead of typing in “black A-line dress,” a visual search — as is the case with Donde — may mean selecting illustrations that represent “dress,” “A-line” and the color “black.” It also might mean using a picture of someone wearing a black dress — taken either with a shopper’s camera or found online — to guide a query finding similar styles.

Visual search can be especially lucrative for fast fashion, where a quickly changing assortment can be overwhelming and shoppers are looking to mimic a specific trend — and they may not know the language to find it.

Zakay, of Donde, says that as fast-fashion brands have migrated to e-commerce, they are no longer limited to the number of items they can display in a brick-and-mortar store, but increased inventory produces a challenge both for the customer to search and for the retailer to classify. And because fast fashion adds new items so quickly, there is often not enough history to provide recommendations for related items based on what other shoppers have clicked on. Thus, Donde is able to automatically classify items and detect existing items in the catalog that are similar.

The technology isn’t bracingly new, but it’s gained steam in the past year.

Zara, for example, has added a button for shoppers to find “similar products” to the ones they are currently viewing, and Asos, H&M and Boohoo Group (which owns Nasty Gal) began offering the ability for shoppers to upload an image that can be matched to similar corresponding items in the brand’s assortment (which makes it easier to copy outfits seen on the runway or celebrities).

F21 - Dress 2[4][2]Visual search results on Forever21.com

Platforms and marketplaces are taking up the technology as well. Instagram, in addition to Pinterest, can identify separate items in an image and match them to items for sale. EBay just supplemented its existing picture-matching search with the option for shoppers to “shop more items that look like this,” after finding something they like within eBay. In July, coding sleuths found out that Snapchat planned to link up with Amazon with a visual search function in its Android app.

“Visual search is table stakes for most of the retailers we talk to,” said Slyce CEO Ted Mann, who has worked with Tommy Hilfiger to make live runway shows shoppable through visual search in the brand’s app. Slyce provides visual search technology to 60 brands, including Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and J.C.Penney, in addition to brands based in Europe and the Middle East, like international retail conglomerate Landmark Group. Mann said independent retailers using Slyce report 20 percent month-over-month growth of visual search usage for three years straight. Usage in the Middle East is “way higher than expected,” he said, but admitted, “it’s still a nascent tech — it’s where voice search was 10 years ago, when it was on the fringe, and then it took off.”

There are some differing opinions of which approach — uploaded photos, as is the case with H&M, or selecting from icons, as is the case with Forever 21 — is best.

Differing approaches notwithstanding, usage and familiarity is likely to increase as digitally native Gen Z grows into its earning potential.

Pinterest reports a nearly 70 percent growth rate in visual searches in the past year, with more than 600 million monthly visual searches. Pinterest retail vertical strategy lead Amy Vener said that retail is rooted in visual experiences, from window displays to “pathing” through the store. “With the rise of online shopping and mobile devices, the visual experience has been sacrificed, making it harder for retailers to inspire shoppers to make unexpected discoveries,” she said. “People want to search for and discover new ideas, even if they don’t have the right words.”

According to Salesforce’s 2017 “Connected Shoppers Report,” 35 percent of millennials said they wanted to search merchandise in a store or digitally by using an image to generate product recommendations — that number fell to 30 percent for Gen X and 23 percent for baby boomers. (Across the board, the “visual search” response was more popular than personalized recommendations and notifications, mobile wallets, chatbots or drone delivery.) That echoes 2017 research from Accenture that found 69 percent of young consumers are interested in making purchases based on visual-oriented searches alone.

Increased usage can turn into more sales. Vener, in speaking to eMarketer analyst Andrew Lipsman for eMarketer’s 2018 report on mobile retail apps, said shopping using visual search “translates into less price sensitivity” and bigger basket sizes. This is backed up by early reads using Donde on the Forever21 app. In the first month after launching “Discover Your Style,” Forever 21 saw a 20 percent increase in average purchase value.

“It’s more efficient for the retailer and more intuitive for the consumer,” Zakay said. “Searching visually is going to be the way people will search for every visual product, whether it’s a watch, a chair or a dress.”

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