Welcome to Near Future. In this weekly feature, The Current spotlights innovations powering the next wave of commerce.
Search was a key building block of the web, creating a way to not just catalog the vast amounts of information available, but also to give a user a tool to quickly find what they were looking for in that vast trove. Providing a curated set of results, it also enabled discovery, in turn powering a massive ad business in the process.
These capabilities have helped to power the growth of ecommerce. Not only was an assortment of goods on a marketplace browsable, but shoppers could also pinpoint the items they were seeking. It helped marry the two ecommerce advantages of voluminous choice and items-come-to-you convenience. To be sure, ecommerce search is still being improved. Retailers are constantly upgrading search capabilities on their websites, and leading search engine Google is offering a new cloud tool to embed its ability to use AI to understand user context and intent through a recenlty-launched capability called Retail Search.
As mobile technology transforms ecommerce, there is more interplay between in-person stores and online shopping. Shoppers are getting more comfortable with the tools of ecommerce. They are also using them to solve problems that carry over in the offline world.
Search is a prominent example where this is playing out. Google has talked about the rise of searches for items that are “in-stock near me.” With the rise of curbside pickup as people prioritized safety in the pandemic and supply chain challenges that made finding items more difficult, it added capabilities in 2020 to display those items more prominently. It added a “nearby” filter to search results, and more information about local stores that was discoverable online.
Improvements on this front are only continuing. A recent prominent example came in the rollout of 100 new product releases from Shopify. A new feature will automatically sync inventory available locally with Google, allowing merchants to be able to notify shoppers when a product is available at a store through search.
With one new capability, search will be embedded as part of the experience of going to the mall.
Simon, which is the parent group of the nation’s largest mall owner with more than 200 properties in its portfolio, said it is launching a new tool that allows shoppers to research in-stock products at mall vendors. The company said it is currently being tested at 29 facilities, with a broader rollout expected this year.
"Simon Search brings new search capabilities to our retail centers, offering shoppers multiple ways to search for specific in-store merchandise," said Mikael Thygesen, Simon’s chief marketing officer, in a statement. "Simon is committed to providing shoppers with the most enjoyable shopping experience possible. This game changing search tool raises the bar, delivering enhanced inventory visibility to our shoppers.”
Browsing has long been a pastime at the mall. Now shoppers can search the inventory at stores.
Simon cited a host of familiar mall retailers that are plugged into the service, including Aéropostale, Anthropologie, Athleta, Banana Republic, Gap, J.Crew, JCPenney and Old Navy.
Along with the benefit to shoppers, the idea is that it can help to increase foot traffic to retailers' stores, as well.
In that, it has echoes of Buy Online Pickup in Store (BOPIS). That approach rose as a popular tool in the pandemic, allowing shoppers to make a purchase online and limit their time in a store at a moment when public health measure recommended doing so. At the same time, retailers appreciated that it still required a trip into the store, presenting an opportunity for shoppers to have another item catch their eye and make another purchase.
That dynamic could play out with enhanced search. Idetifying an in-stock item provides a reason to head to the store, heightening the chance of a purchase. In turn, attracting them into the store gives the retailer opportunities to make sales beyond the item that was the initial subject of their search.
It’s just one of the ways that malls are learning lessons from ecommerce as they seek to address a decline in foot traffic overall for in-person retail, which was down 5% in 2021. This occurred even as net sales rose. Traffic is bouncing back with a return to in-person shopping with pandemic restrictions lifting, as data from Pacer.ai showed a 17.4% increase in visits to indoor malls month-over-month in April 2022. This offers an opportunity for retailers to introduce ways to create stickiness among those who may be coming back for the first time in a while.
In another move that had plenty of inspiration from one of ecommerce’s most recognizable events, Simon’s Simon Property Group launched a new holiday called National Outlet Shopping Day earlier in June. Timed right between Memorial Day and back-to-school just like Amazon Prime Day, the shopping holiday was designed to provide discounts, arriving at a time when prices were rising with inflation at 40-year-highs. Now, Simon plans to make it an annual event.
With shoppers increasingly toggling between ecommerce and in-person shopping, offline and online retail are blending. Expect more familiar features of online shopping to show up IRL.
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At Search On, Google rolled out shopping features for users that make search more visual, and tie in with local inventory.
Shopping is about to become more deeply embedded in Google search.
That’s one of the takeaways from the Search On event, where Google rolled out a number of new features across its capabilities. These included shopping features that allow users to define their search around products that they are looking to buy, and curate the search engine's trove of information in service of that experience.
Here’s a look at the 10 shopping-related features that debuted on Wednesday:
Search with ‘Shop’
One of the new features uses a word to open a shopping-oriented search experience. Users will be able to type “Shop” followed by the type of item they’re seeking, and it will open up a visual feed of products, as well as tools for research and local inventory of that product.
Google is also adding more product categories to shoppable search experience, which was launched in 2021 to enable shopping with Google Lens, window shopping with visual display of products and in-store inventory. It initially featured only apparel, but will now expand to all consumer categories, ranging from electronics to beauty.
Shop a ‘look’
New tools will enable shoppers to assemble an outfit. If a user is shopping for a specific item, the search experience will display complementary items, as well as options for where to buy them.
This feature shows popular products in a particular category. Launching later this fall in the US, it will enable shoppers to view models, styles and brands.
Shop in 3D
(Gif by Google)
Google is adding 3D visuals of shoes in search, building on a release earlier this year that introduced home goods. Google is also providing a new way to build 3D models.
“Thanks to our advancements in machine learning, we can now automate 360-degree spins of sneakers using just a handful of still photos (instead of hundreds),” the company wrote, adding that this feature will be available later this year.
Google said it grew the feature because people engage with 3D images 50% more than static ones.
Google has a series of new features designed to help users as they make decisions on complex purchases that tend to take more time than a single search. This “buying guide” is designed to share information from a wide range of sources inside search. The idea is to provide easy access to key details about a product that a user might otherwise spend time researching. This feature recently launched, and new categories are coming soon, Google said.
This feature adds context to search about a website or product, drawing from information provided by people who have bought it. It offers pros, cons and star ratings. Additionally, users can opt in to get alerts about price drops. This feature will launch in the US “in the coming months,” Google said.
Personalized shopping results
Google said it will soon start rolling out more personalized results based on a user’s habits. Users can also tell Google their preferences directly, and turn off this option. After a user selects a preferred department (such as women’s) and brands, Google will show more of those results. This feature is slated to roll out in the US later this year.
On search, shopping filters are now adapted based on current trends. If particular styles are of-the-moment, Google will add those to the filters and remove others. When shopping jeans, they might see "bootcut" or "wide leg," if they are popular. These filters are now available.
Shop using Discover
In the Google app, the Discover feature will suggest styles based on what a user and others have been shopping for. If they tap a look they like, Lens will display where to buy the items nearby.
Multisearch Near Me
Google’s recently-launched multisearch feature allows users to search for an item by taking a picture of an item, and adding text below it. It’s designed to add visual elements to search, and allow people to add context to find the right item. With the upcoming Multisearch Near Me, users will be able to take a picture of an item or food dish, then find out whether it is available at a nearby store. This, along with other search upgrades, will be available in the coming months, Google said.
Google has talked often this year about ramping up shopping, and rolled out a host of new features to do so. With this latest batch of releases, its approach to upgrading commerce appears to be one that harnesses many Google already has, and more directly apply them to shopping – all with the goal of making it more fun and inspirational, as executives put it.
Google has vast amounts of imagery and in general wants to include more photos in search, so now shopping is more visual. Google has information that people seek while doing research, so shopping now presents that information. Google has data on trends, so it will now show the latest looks and styles.
And, above all, people pull up Google to start shopping, so that can now be part of the experience when a person types in their first search, without having to open the shopping tab. The result is that Google will likely start to look more like a product detail page, albeit with a more visual inclination.
But searching online is not necessarily directly tied to ecommerce. Many of these features are designed to enable users to find an item at a nearby store. Earlier this year, we heard Google executives talk about how “near me” is a top Google search. These features are the product outgrowth of that insight. So, it follows the above logic: Google is used to find items that are available at nearby stores, so the results are displaying local inventory.
Google is emphasizing ecommerce more directly in other areas. After all, it’s still a place where many ecommerce product searches begin, and a big engine for advertising among brands and retailers. In fact, those ads saw many upgrades this year, too. It’s a good bet that when Google has a big rollout like Search On, shopping will be involved for the foreseeable future.
At the end of the day, there is also an imperative for Google to improve shopping. When it comes to search for items to buy, Google is losing ground to Amazon. According to Jungle Scout, 60% of online shoppers said they start a product search on Amazon, while about half said they started on a search engine like Google. (Respondents could pick more than one option). A further 11% said they started on TikTok, showing the short-video platform is already becoming a shopping destination, as well. Given this rise, it makes sense that Google wants to create a shopping experience that stands out.