Google's Froogle last year became one of only a select few shopping sites to start to offer local, "offline" information (ShopLocal and CNet are the others) in addition to traditional e-commerce. Shopping engines across the spectrum recognize — and shopping maestro Brian Smith of Comparison Engines agrees — that offline inventory information is really the (I hate to say it but here goes . . . ) "Holy Grail" of online shopping.
People research online and then want to buy locally. Why? Because they don't want to pay shipping, want to be able to return it locally, want it that day and, in many cases, trust the local retailer (even if it's a big box) more than some anonymous online merchant, regardless of how many happy faces that retailer may have.
As has been widely reported, comScore is launching a tracking study (qSearch Retail) that will formally connect the relationship between search/online shopping and offline buying. This ongoing study will only confirm the increasingly powerful relationship between the Internet and local shopping. It's estimated that almost $350 billion in offline transactions were influenced by the Internet in 2005.
Google's/Froogle's offline inventory data is being provided by StepUp.com and by ShopLocal. And now Google has integrated StepUp data into Maps/Local with a cool twist – product images. It's buried and there are some kinks, but it's very promising. Here's an example.
Your washing machine finally breaks down. After your online research (at Consumer Reports and elsewhere), you determine that you want to buy a Maytag. So you search on Google for "Maytag San Francisco" (indicating your intention to by locally). You then see the "compass" icon, pointing the way to local results. You click the link, taking you into Maps. The top link (after the ad) is for a store called "House of Louie." You can either click the pushpin or click the link and go to the profile page. On the profile page, below the list of "brands sold," there's a link: "More from StepUp.com" (though this gives you no real sense of what's behind the link, you're curious). Clicking that link takes you to this page. Viola: the House of Louie's complete line of appliances (wait, where's that Maytag?). This page shows whether the appliance is in stock and offers the alternative option to buy online.
First let's talk about the obvious problems (recognizing this is a beta/first step):
- This valuable content is buried several clicks down and consumers won't intuitively know the information is available (the "More from StepUp" link is apparently going to change to the more user-friendly "view products")
- The StepUp micro-site/landing page doesn't immediately show the product or the product category I was originally searching for (washing machine)
- I'm not able to search or category browse the micro-site/landing page for that product
Assume these problems get solved. Now let's talk about how this starts to point to a really interesting opportunity for the consumer, the local retailer and Google – and how it much more clearly connects online and offline.
Showing consumers the desired products and whether they're available/in stock helps Google start to serve the needs of the user at each stage of the buying cycle and offers a clear hand-off to a merchant. (You could track phone calls coming from the StepUp micro-site confirming the item in stock, or clicks on maps/directions as indicators of delivery of the lead.) In most cases today, from a consumer perspective, there's the online research and then the guessing about where to buy something or the very painful (my BBQ anecdote) process of trying to determine whether the item is in stock at a particular store.
From the merchant and the engine's viewpoint, there's the impression, the click and then a cliff where the user falls away and there's almost no visibility on what happens after that (coupons/offers and phone tracking rectify that to a degree). The lone exception is the e-commerce vendor who can track things through to the shopping cart. But, again, e-commerce is not the dominant use case – even at $100 billion per year.
Assuming that the information offered by StepUp and Google is accurate and as the coverage becomes greater, and as the integration becomes more intuitive and "elegant," this provides demonstrable value for both the user and the merchant.
I've argued for some time that all shopping engines will need to provide the "where can I buy it locally?" data to fully satisfy the dominant consumer use case. Right now there are a host of practical "infrastructure" problems that companies like ShopLocal, Channel Intelligence and StepUp are trying to solve. But it's only a matter of time before "platform agnostic" becomes the norm and local/offline inventory information becomes a must-have for shopping sites.