It’s long been said that, “consumers are multichannel.” And we are. But true multichannel retailing always seemed just out of reach until the mobile revolution changed everything.
With the swipe of an iPhone, the technological, organizational, and structural impediments to multichannel retail were blown away.
But because consumers have led the revolution, it hasn’t turned out exactly as retailers envisioned.
The recent rise of “showrooming” has pushed multichannel reality into an unforgiving spotlight. While share-shift to Amazon isn’t anything new, it’s a lot harder to swallow when it happens right in front of you -- inside your store.
But the multichannel revolution cuts both ways, and unanticipated consequences will surely surface online as well. My bet is on generalized, multichannel product search. Because why should I only see the relevant online results when I search for a product? I want the relevant offline results as well. And the certainty that a local store has what I want will actually get me to go buy it in person. It’s the mirror image of showrooming.
It’s not a new concept. Some retailers already allow you to search store inventory. But limited to a single retailer’s site, the usefulness is drastically limited.
Who’s going to win in general multichannel search?
Of course there’s Google,. It’s got the assets: product search, retailer product feeds, maps, a mobile OS (even hardware!). Marrying these threads together could create a very compelling solution. Google even started toying with this concept some two years ago with “Stock Nearby” – yet another Google beta that might ultimately lead to the real deal.
eBay is another logical player. By fully integrating its local shopping service, Milo, into its broader overhaul of search capabilities it could create a viable contender. Any grumbling from sellers about added competition would be offset by support from the existing offline merchants selling through eBay. As eBay tries to block Amazon from becoming the default starting point for shopping, integrating local could be a powerful differentiator.
Which brings us to Amazon, who might well beat both Google and eBay to the punch. Why Amazon? At first blush, it seems antithetical to Amazon’s best interests: every sale offline is one that’s not happening on Amazon. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find three reasons Amazon would provide a multichannel search engine.
First, Amazon wants its A9 search engine to be the shopping search engine. What Google is to Internet, Amazon wants to be to shopping. To succeed, results can’t be limited to Amazon products. Marketplace sellers and -- more recently -- third-party advertisers’ products already appear in Amazon search results. Adding offline sellers would add another layer of comprehensiveness. And the more comprehensive Amazon’s search results, the more consumers will start every shopping trip at Amazon.
Second: data. Amazon already gets invaluable market data by observing the performance of its marketplace sellers, and multichannel search would open up a rich new vein of data on how consumers fulfill their purchase intent. Amazon embraced Big Data long before it became a buzzword, and multichannel search makes for a larger and richer pool of behavioral, customer, and product data.
Lastly, like Google and eBay, Amazon already has a revenue model in place. Since third-party advertisers already pay to show up on Amazon’s product search results, incorporating offline sellers into the Product Ads program would further grow its reputed $1 billion ad business.
The biggest obstacles for Amazon -- or Google or eBay -- are the very offline retailers multichannel search most benefits. Many don’t have an accurate in-store inventory, much less one available in real(-ish) time structured feeds. And without that, it is hard to tell a search engine what’s on offer.
But this situation has improved over the past few years. Large retailers overhauling their point-of-sale systems has led to better inventory visibility. And with small retailers selling via eBay and Amazon, they’ve become disciplined about inventory accuracy. Doubtless third parties like Channel Advisor and WebCollage will be willing to help further open up the opportunity.
Multichannel search will certainly happen. In every other part of our lives, the distinctions between online and off continue to blur. Shopping and searching will be no exception.