March 24, 2010, 12:00 AM

Google test lets consumers use phones to check inventory at local stores

Google is testing with major retailers a program that lets consumers check store inventory from their mobile phones. Consumers can search for and find items at nearby Best Buy, Sears, Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, West Elm and Vitamin Shoppe stores.

Katie Evans

Managing Editor, International Research

Google is beta testing with major retailers a program that lets consumers check store inventory from their mobile phones. Consumers can search for and find items at nearby Best Buy, Sears, Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, West Elm and Vitamin Shoppe stores, a Google spokeswoman says.

“We think local availability information is incredibly useful when shopping, especially while on the go,” the spokeswoman says. “Consumers now have the option of either buying the product online or visiting a nearby store.”

For now, the program works on the iPhone, Palm WebOS, and Android devices. Google says it chose the handful of retailers because their Local Business Center and product search data was complete and up to date. Local Business Center is Google’s business listing program for Google.com and Google Maps. Google says product availability information comes directly from participating retailers.

With the program, consumers conducting a mobile search, for, say, a Wii Fit, will see blue dots in the search results accompanied by a link that says "In stock nearby." A click on the link brings up a retailer’s page where the consumer can see if the item is "In Stock" or has "Limited Availability" at a nearby store. If a consumer has enabled Google’s My Location feature, which tells Google her location based on nearby cell phone towers, or if she manually enters her location, she can also see how far away she is from a store.

Consumers can access the local inventory search feature by navigating to Google.com in a mobile browser, tapping on the "more" link, then selecting "Shopping." Or they can look for the "Shopping results" section within general Google search results.

Lou Weiss, chief marketing officer for multichannel retailer Vitamin Shoppe, says it’s trying out the program to gain insight into shopper behavior.

“We are interested in learning more about our customers’ interaction with web, mobile and store and hope to be able to use the learning from this trial to better serve our customers across all the channels,” Weiss says.

While only a handful of chains are taking part in the pilot for now, Google is considering taking more on. Its blog post about the program links to a form retailers can fill out to apply for the pilot.

But finding retailers with up-to-snuff inventory tracking and reporting capabilities could be a difficult task, says Hung LeHong, research vice president, retail advisory services, at research and advisory firm Gartner Inc.

“Accuracy is where the whole thing might fail,” he says. “Large retailers like Best Buy who have to keep their store inventories accurate for their own multichannel programs are fairly accurate. However, most retailers are not at that level yet-even some of the large ones who do not offer order-online-pickup-in-store.” LeHong says retailers that do enable consumers to pick up online orders in stores are forced to maintain accurate store inventory levels lest they disappoint customers.

LeHong notes he’s heard rumblings that Google is trying to get smaller retailers on board with the program, but says small merchants are less likely to have in-store inventory records that are accurate enough to share in real time.

And he notes other challenges, such as showing the local inventory information for the correct goods. For the program to work, consumers need to be able to accurately describe a product in a search box. That’s easy for electronics, books and media, but less so for apparel.

Still, LeHong thinks the move is significant because it’s the first time a player of Google’s size has tried its hand at such a program.

“To date local search has been attempted by smaller players like Krillion, NearbyNow, milo.com and Slifter,” he says “But Google has the eyeballs and critical mass to make this more popular with the masses. Sure, Google will still need to convince the average consumer that it does more than search, but I think it will eventually get there with its new focus on retail.”

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