Justin Jackson lays out the case for turning all of our favourite local stores into a viable Amazon competitor in his post Fight Amazon. It got me thinking about the problems I’ve had trying to buy things from local stores over the past year, and maybe some solutions.
Local Commerce Problems
I try to support local stores when I can. I don’t usually buy clothes, (somehow I’m still clothed), so I can’t speak knowledgeably about clothing shopping, but there have been some instances over the past year when I’ve been incredibly frustrated with local shopping.
It’s the bike shoes that the bike shop had to order twice and took a month to get, late in the season, or the bike brake levers that the bike shop ordered the model for the wrong kind of brake, or the indoor soccer shoes that, even after checking the Sport Chek website were not in stock, or when our portable washing machine broke down an there was no way to buy one locally without actually visiting or calling all the appliance stores to check their stock. Don’t even get me started on trying to buy several yards of cloth when someone in the family is making costumes for a dance recital.
In all of these cases a service that could tell me where products are in stock locally would have solved my problem. Actual purchasing and delivery would make things even better for some products.
The Inventory Problem
Where do I go to buy this?
For stores that already have E-Commerce systems in place it’s probably not too hard to answer this question. The problem is making sure that the E-Commerce systems exist, and have accurate inventory numbers. I haven’t worked in retail for a long time, and when I did we weren’t using anything computerized to record inventory. These days I think some, (but not all!), stores to have computerized inventory but making the systems used in stores talk to E-Commerce systems may be difficult.
For stores that already have reliable stock levels in their E-Commerce systems it should be relatively simple to know their inventory numbers using something like a Google Product Feed. That could be used either by other local stores who are willing to refer customers to competitors with products in stock, or by an aggregator that provides a local shopping experience.
I should also mention shipping: It’s expensive, and it’ll be tough to compete against Amazon, but there’s probably a way to make it happen, and it’s not my area of expertise so I don’t know if any of my ideas are realistic.
The Business Problem
If the technical side works, and we have a bunch of local stores that can take orders online, ship easily and inexpensively, and find alternative sources for items they don’t have, and we have an aggregator where people can go to shop instead of Amazon, we still have a business problem, or two:
- Why would a store recommend that a customer go buy from their competitor now instead of trying to take the order themselves and order in the product?
- Justin mentions commissions in his video. Why would a store pay a commission to its competitor instead of trying to get the sale itself some other way?
- How does the aggregator make money without becoming a pay-to-play advertising service?
- Maybe commissions here too, but is it possible to get enough store owners on board with paying the commission instead of taking their chances with Adwords?
I doubt that I’ll be the person to try to solve these problems, but someone should.
To get to the level of a real, local-everywhere Amazon alternative let’s start with some technical questions.
- Do stores even use computers to track stock?
- Does that change if they sell online?
- How hard is it to make in-store stock-tracking software talk to E-Commerce software?
- What is even being used to track stock in stores?
- Does it have APIs? Can it send notifications to other systems when stock levels change, or receive notifications to change its internal level when an E-Commerce order is received?
- Do we have a good way of identifying the same product across multiple stores? I know that GTINs exist, but suspect they’re less than perfect.
If you know the answers to these, or have more questions, post in the comments like it’s 2005, or we can talk about it on Twitter.
Slashlocal: Someone is already trying
A parent I know from my kids school runs Slashlocal, which is trying to solve some of the local problems. I downloaded it today and will see if it helps me solve their problems. I’m worried their pricing model will discourage stores from putting their entire inventory online, but I believe the product is young they’re working hard to help on-board customers at no cost during the current crisis, so maybe changes are coming.
Update October 2020: I see Slashlocal now has a “Stripe fees + 1%” pricing option with a high limit on the number of items stores can put online. This sounds like a good deal.
Maybe I’ll build a WooCommerce extension?
If you’re interested in a WooCommerce extension to show other places to buy an item when your store is out of stock or you don’t carry what the customer is looking for let me know. If there’s enough interest I’ll build it.