Collapsing the purchasing funnel, one click at a time
A view from Gracie Page

Collapsing the purchasing funnel, one click at a time

No technology has taken social media by storm the way AR has in the past four months.

We can all agree, some video conferences are better than others.

On 21 April, Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel had a particularly good one: announcing outstanding earnings of $462m (£360m, up 44% year on year), with a 20% growth in daily active users – the biggest growth the company has seen since the beginning of 2018. 

But what has this announcement got to do with the future of retail? Well, a lot. 

While billions are spending more time than ever consuming free online content and less time on the high street, it seems retail is in a rut. But retail is actually on the precipice of its biggest revolution since Amazon. The interesting question is: will you capitalise on it? 

Social media servers are bursting at the seams under the biggest usage surges ever seen; Snapchat’s augmented-reality messaging has increased just shy of 60%. Messenger and WhatsApp (both owned by Facebook) message volumes are up 50%. And Pinterest is reporting search increases soaring by a percentage in the thousands. 

Covid-19 is reshaping our relationship with the digital world, meaning our relationship with retail is being remodelled too. 

A tenth of the UK’s online population is now spending more on treats for themselves compared with the start of the year and April Instagram posts tagged "little luxuries" got 1,400% more engagement than one month earlier, proving the lipstick effect is alive and kicking. A recent Facebook survey showed that 24% of Brits were trying new brands because of their innovation and compassion during the crisis. 

Amid this frenzied social landscape, let’s be clear: no technology has taken social media by storm the way AR has in the past four months. Instagram’s free AR software allowing anyone to make face filters has been downloaded one billion times. Pinterest launched its AR try-on feature that takes scrollers from pin to pout in less than five seconds, finally catching up with YouTube. These moves mean AR is no longer relegated to proprietary apps (Ikea Place, anyone?), but is now becoming a normal part of the way we express ourselves on platforms used by billions daily. And guess where it’s going next?

I won’t bury the lead: shoppable AR.

Scanning social content for price tags was normalised by Instagram, thanks to its 2018 launch of Shop: a tab that let users look for stilettos or silk PJs without breaking scroll. With reports of 83% of Instagrammers using the platform to discover new products, it’s not hard to see how AR try-on of clothing, make-up, accessories or even homewares and automobiles will be the next frontier in seamless shopping. 

It only needs one thing to go warp speed and it’s coming in 2021: native social commerce.

Although Facebook say it has no plans to roll out the native commerce functionality it has been trialling Stateside in a closed beta any time soon, we can bet this ability to make purchases within the platform will land in Europe for summer 2021. And with 87% of users already taking some action from seeing a brand on the platform, it would be mighty nice to be able to hit a "buy" button.  

The launch of Shops on Instagram and Facebook two weeks ago, enabling ecommerce platforms such as Woo and Shopify to connect into social store fronts, is a huge stepping stone on the way. Couple that with the fact that Instagram is now asking UK users to answer surveys about how the app feels as a shopping destination, we don’t need a crystal ball to see the future. You’ll soon need a robust social commerce strategy to help people interact with your products from their sofa, just as easily as they can in your shop. 

But this needn’t only mean AR. The kind of vertical video content largely attributed to Snapchat’s growth this quarter is also ripe for shoppability. It lets consumers click on clothes and cars as they shimmy into shot, completely bypassing the need for clunky keyword shopping searches. 

In a world where consumers rely increasingly on picture-perfect content to find and fall in love with their next purchase, visual search is the silent retail revolution. And it has been evolving us away from descriptive search terms and towards an emotional, image-based behaviour that allows the indescribable to be found.

"Visual search represents a paradigm shift in the way we look for and find the things we know we want but can’t easily put into words. With technology becoming increasingly sophisticated, we’ve already got the tools to create a world where tagging a post of something on social could trigger a cross-platform retail search," according to Jenny Griffiths, founder and chief executive of computer-vision company Snap Vision, which works with the likes of Oracle, Baftas and Time Inc on making their images and content shoppable.

As these technologies act like the connective tissue between discovery, consideration, purchase and community, they are collapsing the purchase pathway by providing singular shopping destinations that cater to every need at once.

Brands that understand this have magic at their fingertips – and it doesn’t stop at social media. 

The high-street experience could reach new levels of convenience from Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology announced in March, while Alexa’s integration into earbuds means voice assistance on the move will also be the new norm when we return to shopping centres. 

As with all tech, the supercharge comes from combinations; AR with native commerce lets you try four shades of lippy, share with your bestie and buy it all within a private conversation. Voice with visual search finds frocks when a user tells Alexa: "I’m looking for a dress like Eva Green’s in the Macau scene from Casino Royale." And shoppable video that checks me out without leaving my feed has me buying with greater ease than ever from my bed, bureau or best friend’s house.

Technology doesn’t make for good retail; great experience design does. But the tech is here to support those with the courage and vision to embrace tomorrow today.

One to discuss on the next Zoom, perhaps.

Gracie Page is emerging technology director at VMLY&R London