AskTheLocal is a shopping search engine with a subtle difference; rather than find websites that offer particular products it matches the search query with a postcode to enable shoppers to visit a shop in person to buy the product. Another important difference is the reference to 'postcode' rather than zip code, because AskTheLocal is a UK resource.
The concept is very simple - retailers list their products with the search engine and users input their location and then search for products using free text terms rather than a listing or menu approach. The results screen then usually displays a photograph of the product, a description, the option of comparing prices or linking into Technorati in the hope that someone will have written about it, other items from that retailer and of course the price. Information is also given with respect to the physical location of the shop offering the product, the opening hours and telephone number. Finally there is a link to a map - the emphasis with AskTheLocal really is on locating products and then going and physically buying them.
It's a simple idea and well executed; while I have a few (minor) reservations about the service it makes a real change to find a local search engine for local people, and it is certainly worth exploring if you're in the UK. A similar service (not associated with AskTheLocal) is ShopLocal, so American readers need not feel left out.
AskTheLocal has already got a number of high profile retailers on board, such as Marks and Spencer, Argos, ToysRus and JJB which is helpful, given that searchers are almost bound to find some results for their searches. There are as yet only a very small number of local shops or chains, which limits the value of the service and I suspect areas of the country that are not well represented; I ran a search for a product and got results from shops that were up to 28 miles away and then the next result was for a shop that was over 200 miles away, so coverage is patchy at the moment, though hopefully it will increase in due course.
I would have liked to have seen a link to a retailers website as well - while I appreciate the emphasis of the search engine is on providing physical locations for products a link to a website is to be expected. Most of the items did have good descriptions, but I found a few cases when the result was limited to the title of a product while didn't actually help very much, though to be fair this is a criticism of the retailer and not the search engine itself.
While the service is still quite basic additional functionality is being introduced; the option of being able to check availability and the option of including discount coupons makes a lot of sense.
All in all, it's a search engine and concept that I think shows great promise, and once it has more large retailers signed up, and especially a lot more small niche specialised shops getting involved this could prove to be a very useful resource indeed.