In a world where people use their phones for almost everything, retailers need to be visible where their customers are. But even in 2018, many brick-and-mortar retailers are still falling down on some very basic issues around online visibility.
Consumers consult their phones for information dozens of times per day. Some of this activity is e-Commerce related, but huge numbers of consumers are also looking for information about local businesses. Google reported a 900% increase in searches for products and services “near me” between 2015 and 2017. Many retailers are still failing to take full advantage of this behavior.
When a consumer wants to buy something, their most basic question is “Where can I buy it?” Sometimes this question is easy to answer. If the consumer knows which retailer is likely to have the product, they might just want to look up the retailer’s location and opening hours. Most retailers do a good job of making this information easily accessible.
However, some items can be harder for consumers to find, and this area represents a major area of failure for brick-and-mortar retailers. If a shopper can’t easily find a product, they are likely to search online. In this case, they can find dozens of e-Commerce options within seconds, but local retailers are largely invisible. Even if the product they’re seeking is available half a block away, the consumer might struggle to discover that fact.
The reality is that many local retailers don’t have their in-store product availability listed anywhere. To capture long-tail consumer demand, local retailers need to make in-store inventory and local availability easy for consumers to find. Google has some initiatives in this area, but it’s historically been too hard for retailers to engage.
The opportunity here is not small. It’s important to remember that brick-and-mortar stores still represent the dominant channel. 91% percent of retail spending in the U.S. is still going through brick-and-mortar stores. However, it’s also worth recognizing that the most likely path to purchase is increasingly “research online, buy offline.” If local retailers can’t supply consumers with key information about in-store availability, the consumer is pushed to buy online. Ultimately this favors Amazon and erodes the key advantages of proximity and in-store experience that retailers have invested so heavily to develop.
The fact that traditional retailers are so far behind in this area is largely due to the technical difficulty of surfacing the data. For large retailers, the data may be trapped in a legacy IT system. Smaller retailers can be hampered by a lack of systems integration or technical expertise. However, the retailers that do adapt have a large prize to capture.
An increasing number of retailers are now tackling the problem, and Google also is putting increasing focus on it. Improvements will enable brick-and-mortar to recapture some of the demand that has leaked away to e-Commerce. When shoppers can quickly and easily find a local store that has what they need, local stores can win against Amazon, at least some of the time.
Retail is complicated these days. The future is not purely about e-Commerce. Retailers that succeed in adapting to consumer behavior and seamlessly surfacing relevant information in the right channels can use the Internet as a powerful tool to enhance their existing brick-and-mortar stores.
Mark Cummins is CEO of Pointy, a startup that helps brick-and-mortar retailers make their local inventory information available online. Retailers just plug in a Pointy device and the technology does the rest. The system is used by thousands of retailers across the U.S. Cummins previously worked at Google on the search team. Pointy is his second company, his first company having been acquired by Google in 2010. Cummins holds a PhD in Robotics from Oxford.