Is image recognition technology poised to revolutionize omnichannel fashion retailing?

In the age of omnichannel retailing, the rapid adoption of new technologies has made it possible for retailers to deliver a consistent message and experience to every consumer, no matter how they choose to interact with a brand.  Consumers are no longer satisfied simply visiting a brick-and-mortar location and completing a purchase.  They want to follow companies on Twitter, check reviews of products online before going to the store (reportedly 80% of store shoppers checked prices online in 2013), comparison shop on their smartphones as they browse, and complete transactions with their iPad.  In this omnichannel environment, many retailers have appropriately responded by creating entire teams to manage social media accounts, build e-commerce sites, and optimize supply chains to serve consumers online and in-store.

Over the last few years, more and more retailers have been embracing a new technology to further deliver on these consumer expectations – image recognition and visual search.  Recognizing that consumers often want to look up product information while in-store or on the street, marketers began by leveraging barcode scanners and QR code readers to direct consumers to PDPs, sometimes even allowing them to purchase online.  For various reasons that would require a separate article to fully explain (QR app adoption rates, inconvenience of finding and scanning codes, lack of consumer education, etc.), these interventions rarely aligned with consumers’ desires and often fell short of forecasted conversion rates.  Instead, retailers have recently begun utilizing image recognition technology to skip the QR code and allow consumers to leverage a technology nearly everyone already has and is comfortable using – the cameras on their smartphones – to take pictures of products they are interested in and to immediately be directed to product detail pages.

Amazon was one of the first major retailers to leverage this technology for product discovery at scale.  First with its Flow app and now with the Firefly feature native to the Fire smartphone, Amazon has been at the forefront, pushing consumers to use this new technology to recognize products and purchase them within the company’s owned marketplace.  However, Amazon’s Firefly feature to date has been primarily focused on text recognition for its visual searches (it also has Shazam-like features to identify music and videos), and this limits the type of products the app can identify to products with clear labeling and packaging, such as video game covers and soup cans.  Given my years of experience in the footwear and apparel industry, I only became actively interested in the power of visual search and image recognition after seeing the technology applied to fashion.  Leveraging technology developed at universities such as the Imperial College London, early entrants into the space created applications like Snap Fashion, Style-Eyes, and Slice, which allowed users to snap a photo of a sweater or dress they liked and then receive recommendations from affiliated brands within the app’s network for similar products based on color, shape, and pattern.

Rather than search across an entire marketplace of disparate brands (as is the case with Amazon and early app’s like Snap Fashion), there has been a recent trend for individual brands or retailers (Adidas, Target, and Macy’s to name a few) to launch applications leveraging this technology to lead consumers to products within their own databases and enable mobile purchases.  Given these retailers’ desire to satisfy their consumers’ omnichannel needs, this investment makes perfect sense.  Leveraging third-party technology from visual search companies like Cortexica (among others), retailers can add image recognition features to their already existing mobile applications.  This has numerous direct benefits for the omnichannel consumer.  Image search features enable product discovery at the moment of inspiration, wherever a consumer has the chance to snap a photo.  This technology can be linked with the backend of e-commerce sites to enable immediate conversion and impulse purchases.  It can also provide valuable product information for consumers while they are in a retailer’s brick-and-mortar location, further blurring the lines between the physical and digital consumer experience.  Individual retailers gain an advantage by creating their own, proprietary database of searchable images, ensuring consumers are given recommendations for only their brand’s products, perhaps even pushing specific content depending on inventory and margin information.

We are still in the early stage of retailer adoption for this technology, and big questions remain around whether or not consumers will adjust their search and discovery habits to incorporate these types of features and whether an aggregator or a large set of customized app’s will dominate this space.  However, it is clear this technology has the potential to have a huge impact within the fashion world, and I am excited to see how this environment evolves.


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Retailers speculate that double digit growth in online economy increases show rooming, leading to decline in sales in brick-and-mortar stores, specifically fashion retailers. Fashion retailers have long fought and lost the battle against show rooming where customers window-shop offline and go order online because of price sensitivity or convenience. In the Stone Age, these retailers adopted online platforms as independent channel and separate P & L with a view of a marriage that was meant not to last but seemed wise at that time because everybody else was doing it. Majority of retailers thought online can never replace in-stores shopping experience. Online retail was nascent and did not pose a threat until recently when retailers could no more deny that 22% growth in online retail year-over-year could cut deep in their topline for brick-and-mortar stores. After it dawned on many retailers, many fashion retailers such as Men’s Wearhouse explicitly defined their future strategy in 10-K report to improve digital innovation in their stores to improve sales.

I believe that innovation will drive future of brick-and-mortar retail, making it more cross-channel integrated and personalized. From industry reports, of 15 trillion in global retail, 93% of retail is still offline. 68% of the lost sales in-stores can be captured by ordering the item online from the stores and 74% retailers wants more engaging experience for their customers in-store and are willing to adopt in-store solutions that would facilitate personalized shopping experience for their customers in next 5 years. Reports show that there is a new mobile point of service industry, snowballing around the corner with double digit growth to facilitate this transformation of pure offline retail to a more integrated shopping experience with online, where customer can shop in-stores and buy things online or vice versa.  The forerunners such as Nordstrom and Burberry have proven that there is a positive linear trend in retailer adoption of new technologies that enable online shopping for customers in-stores and growth in revenue per square foot in stores.  Also, this new buzz among industry leaders about “Omni-Channel” experience continues to draw investments in new omni-channel infrastructure for these retailers.

There is enough available evidence to validate the upside of adopting technologies to create omni channel vision for customers in brick-and-mortar stores but I am not sure if this would be sufficient to offset the impact of growth in online retail or if it is safe to assume that the future of brick-and-mortar retail will not be of a 100% showroom.

Source: Motorola Solutions (White Paper “What’s driving tomorrow’s retail experience?”), Marketline Research Reports






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The internet has disrupted the fashion value chain.  New companies can now source high quality materials from factories that many of the luxury brands use and sell them directly to consumers via the internet.  Online companies do not have the high start-up and overhead costs associated with retail companies.  Many online companies are passing this savings onto the consumer, offering high quality products at affordable prices.

While consumers are becoming more informed and learning the value of “cutting out the middle man,” I believe in the fashion industry consumers still want to pay for brands.  While these online companies have a clear value proposition I believe customers will generally not make a purchase unless there is a brand behind the product.  I think this can be seen when contrasting the success of Warby Parker versus similar online eyewear companies that have emerged in the last few years.  While the product offering appears identical (~$95 prescription eyewear), Warby Parker is by far the most successful which I believe is attributable to their brand.

The question is, when many fashion brands are built through expensive marketing campaigns and the in-store customer experience, how do online companies create a brand?  What sort of strategy should they use to build a brand without compromising their value proposition to customers? Online brands could rely on the pure quality of their product but they may run into the chicken/egg problem: customers can’t tell the quality unless they buy the product, but customers don’t want to buy a product from a brand they’ve never heard of.

There is no formulaic answer but I have observed a few tactics which two successful online brands, Warby Parker and BaubleBar, have used to build their brands.

  1. Collaborations – Both Warby Parker and BaubleBar have engaged in numerous designer collaborations which lend credibility to their brand. While consumers may have been reluctant to make their first BaubleBar purchase, a collaboration with a well know jewelry designer such as Erickson Beamon allowed several consumers to overcome the initial hesitation.  Typically these deals are done on a royalty basis which is much cheaper than hiring a well-known designer.
  2. Pop-up stores – Pop-up stores are a great way to build brand recognition, test a market and interact with customers without the high expenses of an actual store.  For example, Warby Parker outfitted a school bus and drove it cross country as a pop-up store.
  3. Press  – By providing an real value proposition to consumers Warby Parker and BaubleBar have been able to generate a lot of press.  Press features are a great way to raise awareness and lend credibility to a brand with consumers.  If approached the right way it comes off as more authentic and is less expensive than marketing.
  4. Free Shipping & free return is an important investment in order to reduce the barrier to trying a brand.

While creating a brand online is no easy feat it is essential to ensure your company will remain relevant with consumers for years to come.


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Showrooming: A shift in practice

Retailers have long been concerned by the impact that showrooming had on their businesses. Showrooming is when consumers browse and look at products in brick-and-mortar stores but purchase products online. It became a particularly significant issue in 2011 when Amazon released their “price checker” app and gave all customers who scanned products in-store 5% of Amazon-purchased products.

Since 2011, Amazon and other ecommerce businesses have capitalized on their ability to access customers at any time through their apps and online presence. Brick-and-mortar stores lose out to online retailers who can sell items more cheaply, ship large and bulk items more conveniently, and provide more information on goods and services than in-store clerks are able to provide. As a result, 2011 and 2012 studies suggest that between 40-65% of customers purchase products online when in another retailer’s brick-and-mortar store.

A shift in consumer habits

While showrooming continues to be a concern however, two recent studies released this year suggest the practice may be in decline. A September 2013 study conducted by Columbia Business School and Almia suggests that 50% of those who use mobile devices in-store end up making a purchase in-store instead of on another company’s app. Further, while price checking continues to the leading reason for going on one’s mobile device in store, mobile users are also interested and focused on convenience, gathering additional product information, and comparing products online.

Additionally, a June 2013 study conducted by emarketer also points to the importance to brick-and-mortar retailers to really have an “omniprescent” channel strategy in which retailers are able to access and connect to consumers across a number of platforms is key to retailer success. Thus if retailers are able to provide a seamless and consistent experience across all platforms – online, on mobile, and in-store – it is more likely to get customers to purchase goods through their retail location as opposed to through Amazon or ecommerce-only sites. Please see below for full survey data from emarketer.

Anne Fauvre_9-26-13

Future Suggestions for Retailers

What this shift in showrooming practices suggests is that traditional brick-and-mortar stores can compete with large ecommerce companies such as Amazon. In order to compete, however, traditional retailers need to harness and utilize the internet and mobile apps to provide customers with consistent experiences across all platforms.

Preventing showrooming is another significant reason for retailers to invest in the development of high-quality mobile apps. This app can and should provide significant information about the company and online deals – but should also begin to include more and more information about what a customer will see in front of them in-store including specific store maps, in-store deals, product information, and access to customer service.

In addition, developing apps that can assess where micro-location or “hyper local” information can help retailers to provide more and more specific information about products that are right in front of the consumer. As Bloomberg BusinessWeek recently reported, Wal-Mart recently developed an app that uses location-based “geo-fencing” to develop an app that is hyperlocal. As a result, 12 percent of the company’s online revenue is actually from customers in-store.





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For the reader unfamiliar with Nigel Tufnel’s (American actor Christopher Guest from the rock-umentary This is Spinal Tap) quote regarding his Marshall brand guitar amplifier first watch this brief clip from the movie. The crux of Nigel’s supposition that his amplifier can “go to 11” is that just when a guitarist believes that s/he has maxed out the volume on an amplifier, a model that “goes to 11” will provide “1 more,” or just a little more volume to edge out any other player or amplifier. The fretted instrument market has continually remained “louder” than the percussion instrument market for years, and if the recent past is any indication, percussion manufacturers and retailers will need to address several strengths of the incumbent guitar market in order to turn that industry up to 11… might the internet prove to be that “1 more?”

Recent sales historical comparison: guitar-wielding Goliath vs drum-playing David.

In 2010 the fretted instrument market held a retail value of $1.443 billion, of which $839 million, or 58%, consisted of acoustic and electric guitar sales, up 4.6% from the previous year [1]. That same year the percussion retail market retail value only reached $478.8 million, of which only $94.9 million, or 19.8%, consisted of drum set sales, up 7% from the previous year [2]. A few years ago drums sales were on an upward trend, but year on year sales dropped 3.2% in 2011 and 9% in 2012 respectively [3]. During that same time guitar sales rose 5.7% in 2011 then tailed off only slightly by 0.9% in 2012 [4]. By 2012, even with an average guitar unit price of $402 versus $600 for drums, the total value of guitar sales outstripped drum sales by an ratio of over 10:1 [5]. It’s no wonder that when the reader attempts to conduct an online search for a “drum only online retailer” the result returns nary a company that ranks in the top 200 of music product retailers [6].

Retail musical instrument industry consolidation: there’s a reason Guitar Center is not called Drum Center.

Observing the top 200’s ‘top 10,’ seen below, and even more dismal picture of the industry surfaces in the eyes not only of drum retailers, but also of all retailers other than the incumbent leader. Guitar Center is the obvious front-runner with 1.6x the sales of the sum of the next 9 ranking retailers and over 5x the number of brick and mortar retail locations than the sum of the rest. While I was unable to determine the ‘by-instrument stratification’ of Guitar Center’s sales, by applying a crude estimation from the ratio above I estimate that Guitar Center experienced $194 million in drum sales, or just over a 40% market share.

2012 Rank


2012 Sales

% Chg



Guitar Center, Inc.





Sam Ash Music Corp.










American Musical Supply





Full Compass Systems, Ltd.





Washington Music Center





B&H Photo & Video





J.W. Pepper





Unique Squared





Alto Music




(Source: Accessed 21 September, 2013)

While Guitar Center may have earned this market share through an alleged price fixing scheme, the dire-straits for drum only retailers is not yet fully fleshed out [7]. Guitar Center’s executives, rather wisely to be fair, entered the online channel with a 1999 purchase of the leading online musical instrument retailer Musician’s Friend. While continually flirting with its closest online retail rival, Germany’s Musikhaus Thomann, Musician’s Friend is more often than not at the top of the online retailer’s list with estimated revenues that are over 4x the number 3 and 4 ranking online retailers [8]. To create the ultimate triumvirate of moats (brick and mortar retail, online retail and online reviews) Guitar Center purchased Harmony Central, a “leading internet resource for musicians” which provides reviews for all varieties of new musical instruments, according to its website. The question now is posited, if Guitar Center already has such an entrenched brick and mortar presence, and owns the leading online retailer, what is a current or future drum retailer to do? Perhaps pursue a ‘low overhead cost-online only’ presence in hopes of staying lean and earning a small profit?

Flaws with trying to sell drums online: do drummers not use the internet because they’re too old?

The median age of musical instrument purchasers in the United States is 37.1 years old and per capita Americans spend $21.12 per year on instruments [9]. The perceptive reader will conclude that every American does not own a guitar or drum set, thus the per capita data is only significant in that it demonstrates that Americans spend more, per capita, than any other nationality on instruments. Hence a drum retailer looking to break into the online market would be well served focused on the American population. Interestingly, the age plays quite an important role when coupled with an intuitive finding that the “propensity to be online declines with age… [for example] a 35 year old is 5.5% less likely to be online than a 25 year old” [10]. Additionally, when observing the propensity to purchase online “age effects are also larger, now being 8% to 13% [less likely to purchase online] per 10 years” of age [11]. To be clear, that median 37.1 year old who is buying an instrument either for him/herself, or as a gift for a child, possesses a weaker preference for purchasing online than a younger consumer who may be more interested in an online purchase. But how can a drum retailer, already handicapped by an extremely weak presence in the retail market in terms of gross sales both on and offline, break down this barrier? I submit that if a website is created to most similarly replicate the “in person” purchasing experience, allowing him/her to evaluate the drums as if s/he was playing them, then the 37.1 year old drummer will finally realize the value of not wasting time, gas and money by commuting to a brick and mortar store. To be sure, the website must enable the drummer to see and hear the drums in a manner that substitutes for the hands-on experience s/he experiences when purchasing a new drum set in person.

Thoughts on harnessing the internet for drums: can a website replicate the in-store experience?

While some drum manufactures do enable a potential customer to see a drum set online, and hear a drum set one “drum hit” at a time, there exists no succinct tool to evaluate an entire set of drums and cymbals together in a manner akin to sitting behind a kit in a store and testing the entire set up at once. No drum or general musical instrument retailer has such a tool on its site, not even Guitar Center or Musician’s Friend.

Even the most comprehensive amalgamation of drum set purchasing decisions addressed by a drum set building tool still remains drum brand specific as it’s provided by a manufacturer and not a retailer. The recording of each drum experienced with this tool is only a single hit, so unless the consumer intends to play Queen’s “we will rock you” over and over by clicking each drum repeatedly with his/her mouse, this tool does little the replicate the in-store experience of sitting behind a kit and testing it.

One drummer’s dream: being able to play every drum before purchasing, all from the comfort of the couch.

I submit that there should be an online drum configuration tool that expands on the previously provided example “drums set builder.” Every component of the drum set is, except for the tom drum’s mounting system, compatible with every other component. To clarify, a consumer can purchase a Ludwig brand snare drum, mount it on a Yamaha brand snare drum stand, compose the reset of his/her drum set with vintage 1950’s era Rogers brand drums, include a Zildjian brand ride cymbal and Sabian brand hi-hat cymbals, mount them on Gretsch brand cymbal stands, accompany the kit with a Pearl brand bass drum pedal, and even augment the entire setup with a few electronic drums from a variety of manufacturers. This exhaustive example is merely one of a nearly infinite variety of drum set configurations, all of which can be tested from a consumer’s computer/smart phone.

If a drummer currently wants to evaluate the appearance and combined sound of a variety of drum set configurations s/he would first be forced to visit a brick and mortar store, then hope the store stocked the drums and cymbals s/he desired to evaluate, then hope the store both had the room to assemble a kit and permitted the playing of it on the store floor. The sheer impossibility of finding every desired piece in one location, and then constructing it over and over again until the optimal setup is achieved, is a significant hurdle that can be overcome with the creation of this new online tool. The two basic and beneficial functions will enable the tool’s success are:

1)   The tool must consist of as comprehensive a list as possible of percussion brands which will enable the user to either build a setup from scratch, or construct his/her existing kit for the intended purpose of adding new components and conducting a “virtual auditory and visual test-drive.” That is, the tool must enable the user to “drag and drop” the drums and cymbals on a screen, select the color/finish of them and then enable the user to rotate the view of the kit from several viewing angles.

2)   The tool must enable the user to either virtually play the new drum set like a real kit or have a pre-loaded MIDI file that recognizes each drum and cymbal type, then automatically plays a variety of basic drum beats back to the user to help evaluate the sound of the entire kit together. The added value comes from an ability to substitute single or multiple drums/cymbals at once to vary the entire kit’s feel, all while in pursuit of the optimal blend.

While there are surely additional ways an online virtual drum set construction tool can be further expanded, this basic two feature creation is a noble starting point. I submit that this tool may have a disruptive impact on the current percussion retail industry, following in the steps of other industries, such as books and airline tickets, that were also once thought to be unviable for the internet retail channel and are now successfully entrenched online [12].

[1] Music Trades, Apr2013, Vol. 161 Issue 3, p71.

[2] Ibid, p96.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p71.

[5] Ibid, p71, p96.

[6] Music Trades, Aug2013, Vol. 161 Issue 7, p106-112.

[7] Music Trades, Sep2010, Vol. 158 Issue 8, p24-25.

[8] Music Trades, Aug2010, Vol. 158 Issue 7, p108; Music Trades, Aug2011, Vol. 159 Issue 7, p130.

[9] Music Trades, Dec2012, Vol. 160 Issue 11, p72.

[10] Lieber, Ethan and Chad Syverson, “Online vs Offline Competition,” January 2011,

[11] Ibid.

[12] Professor Benjamin Edelman, “The Online Economy,” conversation with author, September 25, 2013.


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