According to eMarketer, this year, 46% of retail sales will be influenced by the web – but more than 90% of total retail transactions will take place in stores, from small neighborhood boutiques to national chains. These statistics set the stage for Google’s latest announcement that the engine will now display in-store product inventory status for certain retailers as they head into the holiday season crunch.
We already know that mobile search queries are on the rise, and Google cites 20% of searches on Google are related to location, while Microsoft claims 53% of mobile searches on Bing have a local intent. In addition, Smartphones are often GPS-enabled with full browser capabilities that are similar to a desktop like search experience. So, Google’s latest local search enhancements are just one example of the engines expanding their offerings to mirror consumer habits.
This new opportunity offers retailers a progression off the March 2010 Beta program called Stock Nearby. On a personal level, I’ve been quite anxious for this type of advancement, one that truly improves an on-to-offline search loop. For example, when I want instant gratification in my product searches, I often lack confidence when it comes to nearby stores that might have “size 8 Adidas Copa Mundial soccer shoes” in stock. I might use Google Local/Maps to see what shoe or soccer stores are in my area.
In the end, the real search and discovery process might be a few gallons of gas, and a leap of faith while driving across town to a specific store in mind, a store that may or may not have my specific shoe in stock. Sure, I can call a few nearby stores, but that’s not efficient. Today, Google is dangling a fresh carrot to create critical mass for retailer participation, offering an early adoption to enable retailers the ability to share inventory levels and add transparency to the end consumer.
Most large retailers already participate in Google Product Search, Google’s free (non-CPC) shopping comparison engine. Participation and active management of “online” product inventory allows Google products to stay current with your website’s online catalog of product detail info. Google Products allows a few ways to submit and maintain product feeds directly, or it can be routed through an agency or third-party vendor to fully optimize the process.
Google product results can be accessed through a number of Google’s Search verticals, starting with Google’s “blended” Universal results (i.e. if your query is product specific in nature). The Google Shopping vertical also makes available product details and price comparison search amongst other online retailers. Google Books along with Google paid solutions can also leverage a retailer’s online product inventory data.
Additionally, many retailers have brick and mortar business locations. Large retail brands often maintain hundreds or thousands of locations, with ongoing details that need changing or enhancements. So, just like Google Products, it’s important for retailers to proactively manage updates, accuracy and optimizations for each of their places through Google. Details about each business location include address, services, phone number, contact information, images, videos, related links and operational info.
These optimizations have a duel impact for marketers, including the power of “branding” and accuracy, plus data enhancements that power various search results. 360i’s previous blog post walks through the importance of Google Places in more detail. Similar to a clean business location with pretty signage and curb appeal, active management has compounding influence on consumers.
However, Google’s new announcement about in-store inventory likely adds a new layer of complexity for retailers considering this opportunity and active sharing of their individual stores’ inventory data. In the previous Google Product Search, a retailer simply needed the ability to upload (hourly, daily, weekly, or minimum – monthly) inventory feeds reflecting a website’s product inventory levels. To accomplish this, a brand’s ecommerce team or webmaster would simply export a data file, pulled via a site’s existing product database. In turn, this data is uploaded on schedule to a “verified” Google Products Account, aligned with a brand’s domain name.
Yet, this new opportunity creates some real challenges for retailers, beyond ecommerce and the webmaster’s control, often requiring support from personnel who manage store inventory and the software management systems. Thus, Google’s new program is not about the inventory available on websites, rather accessing and communicating real-time inventory data per real store locations. For large brands, gaining access, and sharing this information could be challenging depending on their inventory management solution, software, and other unique processes. All in all, it might be a lot of work to develop a standardized process to fuel Google with this real time data, per store, that keeps inventory fresh and available for Google, and aligned with hundreds or thousands of stores.
Nevertheless, partnering with Google, retailers can make transparent inventory product details per individual store location, aiding relevance for location minded searchers. The engine says it has already solidified partnerships with over 70 retail brands and launched programs with over 35, including Williams-Sonoma, Guitar Center and Office Depot.
Here are a few suggestions for retailers in light of the update:
1. Get ahead of the curve and discuss partnership opportunities with Google and learn about the process, timing or setup for participation. Keep in mind that if you are not already sorting this opportunity out with Google at the moment, it’s probably unrealistic to be an active participant in 2010. Start planning for 2011 if the opportunity sounds appealing.
- Remember that the new program has some other requirements
- Feed freshness, delivery and ongoing updates to keep Google’s results relevant
- Fill out an interest form, work with your agency or contact a Google rep today
2. Retailers should start conversations with their inventory software management vendor to understand the flexibility of the system. Can the software solution produce feed updates (daily/hourly) for each of retail location? Google has already struck deals with enterprise software companies JDA, Epicor, and Oracle to integrate the Google Shopping upload process into the inventory management systems.
3. Start brainstorming pricing tactics for the online inventory and individual stores and strategies that can maximize conversions or margins aided by search engine relevance and positioning. As in-store inventory considerations have their challenges, the program’s successes must integrate an online and offline strategy. If participating, consider a threshold number to be “out of stock” as inventory levels become low in-store. This new display could create poor user experience if consumers drive to a store and find out the last two units have sold.
4. Active and verified management of your physical store(s) location data in Google Places is critical. If you haven’t set this up already, you will want to look into it as soon as possible.
In general, a retailer’s ability to provide Google (and others) accurate and detailed business location info is a prerequisite, an important factor that allows Google’s new program an ability to draw a parallel of product inventory to active store locations (IDS) also found within Google local/maps, product search and more.
5. Retailers can start to envision change with the search engine discovery process in the near future for their vertical.
- While this localized product data is not being used in AdWords (paid sponsor links) don’t be surprised if it supplements a future opportunity to drive more geo-targeted relevance of product ads.
- Prepare for a new generation of voice recognition search and mobile search devices (aka GPS Smartphones) that influence real time choices consumers make while driving or walking. Their GPS-enabled Smartphones will sway them left or right in pursuit of specific products in a regional circumference.
- Mobile devices will soon trigger auto reminders if a product is available within X miles of you.
- User behavior will alter price point and instant gratification strategies between web and retail stores. Participating brands could take advantage over smaller retailers who don’t have the proper systems or knowledge to communicate with Google and other engines effectively.
Google continues to lead the charge that enables new standards and search innovation to flourish. The future of this opportunity will grow in contrast to new participation levels. While many websites allow inventory check or status within the website’s functionality itself, the concept of reducing the number of clicks for users can only spark more offline conversion directly from web search result pages. Non-participating retailers should keep a close eye on how this progresses, and use 2011 to prepare accordingly.