Pinterest Accelerates Path to Direct Commerce

This is the latest in Localogy’s Skate To Where the Puck is Going series. Running semi-weekly, it examines the moves and motivations of tech giants as leading indicators for where markets are moving. Check out the entire series here, and its origin here


Pinterest has always been advantaged by context and user intent. By cultivating quasi-shopping and product discovery use cases, it set itself up to monetize the experience in native and non-contrived ways. And it has slowly leaned into that over the past few years with more transactional features for direct commerce.

The latest move came this week when Pinterest added a “Shop” tab in its Lens search results. For those unfamiliar, Lens is Pinterest’s visual search play. Like Google lens, it’s a “search what you see” proposition to point your phone at items in the real world to trigger Pinterest searches for visually-similar merch.

Users will now see a results page that includes shoppable pins — an existing Pinterest feature that makes items shoppable. So what this does is marry two emerging Pinterest use cases. The first is more visual capability to search things you see; and the second is more transactional capability to buy things you search.

Stepping back, Pinterest Lens generally follows the progression towards more intuitive search inputs. Google is doing similar to future-proof its core search business with query-volume boosting inputs. This is part of a broader move to condition behavior around a variety of input modalities… enter voice and visual search.

Back to Pinterest, visual search likewise aligns with its product road map as lots of pinnable items exist in the physical world around us. That’s particularly true in Pinterest-strong verticals like fashion, home goods and food. And the underlying technology continues to improve including computer vision and machine learning.

With that backdrop, it’s a logical next step to integrate transactional calls-to-action in visual search results. Most of Pinterest’s work with Lens so far was experimental, to ensure it works reliably and that consumers are engaging. Transactional buttons are now a strong signal that it’s ready for prime time on both counts.

Fast Track

Another trend this follows is the continued fast-tracking and pivoting towards all things e-commerce. Covid-era demand signals have shifted towards anything that elevates remote productivity, home entertainment… and e-commerce. Those who can pivot with the greatest agility (and good product design, of course) win.

The pivot trend is one we’ve been tracking around everyone from YouTube to Yelp. Specific to e-commerce, we recently saw Shopify launch its user-facing app for the first time and Facebook launched Shops last week. The latter has some parallels to Pinterest Shops that go beyond sharing the same name.

Specifically, this democratizes e-commerce for SMB and mid-market merchants. Putting aside the user-facing implications, the merchant-facing implications are potentially more transformative. Like Facebook Shops, this gives merchants greater capability to sell things from the Pinterest page/profile they already had.

Speaking of Facebook, Pinterest Shops also has some competitive implications with the social giant. Instagram specifically has become a place that, like Pinterest, has a native and natural use case around shopping and product discovery. And it’s likewise leaning into that with lots of transactional features.

Feedback Loop

Meanwhile, the remaining question is how visual search will gain traction among consumers. Is scanning an item with your phone easier or more compelling than typing or speaking a search query? It depends on the category or specific search query, as holding your phone up to lamp is more effective than describing it.

But there are downsides too. Visual search isn’t culturally a thing yet and requires a behavioral shift that is physical in nature (holding up a phone). History has taught us that this is an extremely difficult and slow-moving process. And it will only apply in situations where the subject is in view/proximity, versus recalled.

But the numbers suggest that visual search is catching on to some degree. Google Lens announced last year  (last available data) that it recognizes a billion products and it’s reached one billion visual searches. Pinterest more recently said that its Lens product recognizes 2.5 billion products, and it’s seeing strong traction.

As part of this week’s launch of the new Shop feature, Pinterest gave us some fresh data including the fact that year-over-year visual searches have tripled. During the same period, it’s also doubled the number of attributes it can detect in women’s fashion (style, texture, etc.) and grew its matching accuracy 50 percent.

The technology will continue to progress and gain traction as a feedback loop reinforces its value and reliability — especially among camera-native Gen Z who slowly gain buying power. Google will also continue to incubate visual search and plant it at easier touchpoints, thus acclimating consumers.

Meanwhile, Pinterest will have to streamline the UX. Pinterest Lens requires that you snap and upload a picture of the physical-world subject. Google Lens rather lets you hold up your phone for a live viewfinder, from which you can tap on items to search visually. It will have to be that easy for mass-adoption.

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