Culture ClubMarch 25, 2021

The Tipping Point: Reimagining Representation in E-Commerce

By ZOHAR GILAD | CONTRIBUTING WRITER‍

Mere weeks before the world shut down for a year-long intermission and long-standing events and gatherings were canceled, New York City hosted its 27th Fashion Week.

 

People arrived in droves to watch beautiful models strut their stuff on the runways (and off). But one of the foremost aspects of the week had nothing to do with fashion at all—according to reports, Spring 2020 was the most racially diverse fashion week ever, with an estimated 47% of models being women of color.

 

Driven by consumer activism, heightened cultural sensitivity, and a call for social justice, racial diversity has seen some improvement over the last five years.

 

Consumers are increasingly holding brands accountable for their views and values and factoring in how closely those values align with their own before purchasing.

 

Since the Spring 2015 Fashion Week, the percentage of models of color has grown from 17% to a notable 41.5% across the fashion capitals of the world—New York, London, Milan, and Paris.

 

But there’s still room for improvement. Initiatives like the new “Black in Fashion Council,” which highlights the lack of inclusion within the fashion industry, prove that the problem pervades, despite the progress around diversity. And it extends heavily to the retail and eCommerce industries.

 

The good news is that some top brands are blazing a trail by prioritizing inclusivity. Nike recently announced a five-year plan for creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce and a $125 million investment to support businesses that join them in addressing racial inequalities in the workplace.

 

The message is that diversity is not a project. It must top the list of business priorities and act as a lens through which an organization views its structure, processes, and people.

 

More good news: brands that focus on inclusion and diversity attract more paying customers.

 

A report on model racial congruency on consumer behavior found that Black shoppers are more likely to spend significantly more money on specific items, such as perfume, when advertised by Black models. White shoppers are also notably driven to purchase products modeled by people of color, uncovering a giant blind spot for online retailers.

 

Harnessing AI for Representation, Equity & Inclusion

Excellent customer experience differentiates a brand, which must constantly keep in mind what Bill Gates famously coined the “What have you done for me lately?” syndrome.

 

Most companies know that artificial intelligence (AI) and related technology are critical ingredients for delivering an exceptional experience.

 

Technology has driven measurable results in many significant areas within the eCommerce industry, including personalization, online merchandising, visual recommendations, search, and more.

 

Brands that harness AI are empowered to better understand shoppers. AI-driven data and insights equip them to make good on the delivery of hyper-personalized experiences, especially important since the very essence of a brand includes targeting and appealing to its audience. This includes size, race, gender, and even culture.

 

According to an informal survey of more than five online clothing stores in India, at least 50% of models were white. The items they were selling included sari’s, kurtis, and traditional ornaments sold by Indian jewelry brands.

 

But not all AI is created equal. Traditional AI models rely on customer segmentation to generate insights about a specific group, but this isn’t good enough in today’s market.

 

Superior experience is attained by recognizing each customer as an individual and is achieved by feeding an increased number of data streams to its AI engine. In other words, for a bigger, more robust AI engine, more is more when it comes to fuel.

 

The benefits of increasing representation in online stores are not simply a theory. Research from Google tells us that diversity and representation are top drivers for engaging with content, and Black millennial audiences are actively asking for more.

 

One respondent summed it up: “We’re not all one shade of black. We have so many different skin colors, so many different textures of natural hair. We notice when advertisers go the extra mile to acknowledge that and avoid choosing one looking to represent all Black women and men.”

 

Why Now?

It stands to reason that the same logic applies to what shoppers see when browsing online stores. But why does this matter more today than ever before? The retail industry saw explosive growth in 2020. Consumers spent $861.12 billion online with U.S. merchants, up an exceptional 44% year over year.

 

The National Retail Federation (NRF) is forecasting eCommerce sales will grow between 18% and 23% in the year ahead. Still, there clearly exists a massive opportunity when it comes to representation in online shopping.

 

AI can help merchants fill the gap and create AI-generated models that online merchants can leverage to replace the traditional, de facto white fashion models.

 

The most important benefit is that consumers can select a model that best represents them when shopping online, including their size, age, and skin color. This offers a more accurate view of how the item might look on a relatable model, versus the young and very thin models that retailers typically use.

 

The benefits of incorporating AI to simply reflect shoppers’ images not only have a direct impact on inclusiveness and diversity, but its impact can be felt across the business, from revenue and company growth to a company’s carbon footprint.

 

The future of eCommerce looks very different today than it did a decade ago, and in order to succeed, brands must understand one thing—diversity is always in fashion.


 

Zohar Gilad

Zohar is the Co-founder & CEO of Fast Simon, a leader in shopping optimization for merchants. Its state-of-the-art platform, InstantSearch+, is revolutionizing retail data by integrating shopper behavioral signals, store
signals, and visual signals for the first time ever.

 

For more information, please visit https://www.instantsearchplus.com/.