From Online Research to Offline Shopping

A new report from Accenture reveals that the majority of product research happens online, while the majority of purchases resulting from that research happen offline in local physical store locations.

Specifically, the report notes that 67 percent of survey respondents prefer to make purchases in physical stores while 69 percent research product features online and 68 percent compare prices online. Combining these variables, 58 percent said they locate items online before going to a store to purchase, while only 13 percent said the Internet plays no part in their offline shopping.

The Kelsey Group research indicates that with purchases over $500, where the Internet is the starting point, over 90 percent of the transactions finish offline. comScore meanwhile reported last year that 63 percent of search related purchases happen offline; and The U.S. Census Bureau reports that e-commerce represents only 2.5 percent of U.S. retail spending.

Many business models have developed with these findings in mind including NearbyNow, Yokel, ShopLocal, and StepUp Commerce. Each puts varying levels of product and inventory information online in a searchable fashion, for offline local shopping. ShopLocal deals with big box retailers; NearbyNow with shopping center retailers; and StepUp with small businesses. Collectively, all three mostly cover the gamut of retail segments.

StepUp is probably the furthest ahead of the game in terms of providing real time inventory feeds that it gets from small businesses. StepUp’s ability to reach a large and fragmented base of small businesses was a driving factor in Intuit’s acquisition of the company, Google’s partnership with the company; and the melding of all three, in the Google AdWords integration into QuickBooks.

We’re getting closer and closer to more reliable data served in easier to use formats by these and other companies that may eliminate the need for the store phone call – a commonly used method, even to double check information gained online. But even a call to the store is an imperfect art, given often-times busy store clerks; or the latency and general human error factor in communicating how much a specific item costs, or how many are on the shelf.

The key to solving this problem could be tighter integration of online experiences with in-store inventory management and point of sale software systems, in order to offer true online real time inventory data. Optimizing the data for searchability will also represent an important challenge; and new local product search site Krillion deserves a nod for the SEO efforts it is applying to literally millions of individual product listing pages.

Intuit’s stake in the point of sale software market positions StepUp to integrate reliable data with its online product and inventory search product, which could push forward the ties between online research and offline shopping. The tracking benefits inherent in a tighter feedback loop between the two will also enable more affective ROI assessment for online advertisers, which has traditionally been a fallback of the online-offline purchase funnel.

A tighter integration could also, importantly, improve the user experience and effectively drive adoption of local online product research and in store buying beyond the levels portrayed by Accenture and others.

For local advertisers – especially in high consideration product categories such as major appliances and high-end consumer electronics – this means there is an opportunity to increase store foot traffic through more effective and data-rich online advertising.

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