Ask Who? In the U.K., AskTheLocal
AskTheLocal.com is a new “shopping search engine” recently launched in the U.K. Started by husband-and-wife team Philip and Paula Abrahamson, along with Philip’s brother Peter, AskTheLocal is similar in concept to ShopLocal in the U.S. (and to a lesser degree, other local shopping services).
The goal of these “Web-to-store” services is to drive customers doing Web-based research or browsing into local brick-and-mortar stores to make purchases. The concept is straightforward: Local merchants provide their product and inventory data, and consumers use the site to search (by location) for particular products and the stores that carry them. AskTheLocal.com returns a list of stores that carry queried items, links to Technorati for additional content and links to U.K. maps.
With some of the more robust “Web-to-store” sites in the U.S. (e.g., Become.com), additional content streams are presented with search results (e.g., product specifications, user comments, buying guides, etc.). So far, AskTheLocal.com is pretty basic, providing a simple product description, price, photo and general merchant information.
One of the things we like about AskTheLocal.com is its straightforward user interface. If you've read our October White Paper “2006 IYP/Local Search Product Review: Is Good ‘Good Enough’?” you'll know that we like our UIs simple and clean. This is no exception.
However, we also have some concerns about AskTheLocal.com so far:
It doesn't belong to any ad distribution network which is generally a sine qua non on this side of the Pond. (By contrast, ShopLocal.com distributes Google ads among others.)
The links to retailers' Web sites are somewhat spotty.
There is limited information provided on each item probably not enough for larger purchases, or purchases by enthusiasts.
So far, the great majority of merchandise represented on AskTheLocal is from large chains (e.g., Marks & Spencer) not the local High Street boutiques.
Question: Why isn't Gannett's U.K. subsidiary (the U.K.'s second-largest regional newspaper publisher) involved with AskTheLocal.com per Gannett's stake in ShopLocal.com (below)?
Our take is that the providers of similar services in the U.S. are several evolutionary stages ahead. ShopLocal started in 1999 as CrossMedia Services and is owned by the Tribune Co., Gannett and The McClatchy Co. In addition to supporting product searches, ShopLocal reproduces newspaper ads and ad circulars (the type you see in your Sunday paper) on its site. It also uses Boodle to power a coupon section.
Quick takes on other U.S. players:
StepUp.com: Focuses on retailers (the supply side). Distributes via Google and others. The flip side of the “chicken and egg” issue.
Become.com: We've become fond of Become.com. It provides abundant relevant information from multiple sources (e.g., “Product Reviews,” “Buying Guides,” etc.). Its execution appears to be robust, and the site is easy to navigate.
NearbyNow.com: Shopping center-centric. Interesting positioning, particularly given the importance of mall-based shopping in the U.S. Read more about the company here.
To date, we're not clear on the future for this entire genre we can see several alternative evolutionary paths:
The genre never really takes off. Consumers are content with the positioning of existing shopping services (e.g., a mix of enthusiast verticals like CNET.com and price comparison services).
There is significant demand for this genre, but the space becomes heavily dominated by the usual suspects (the local shopping services of the search/portal players e.g., Froogle). There's not enough air left for the smaller, general-purpose providers.
The space never gets standardized each local shopping service follows its own proprietary format for inputting product information and inventory. Notwithstanding valiant XML-standardization efforts, this service never gets traction with smaller merchants it's simply more aggravation than it’s worth. These services only work for the big chains, which arguably don't get much incremental benefit from them in the first place.
Our overall take on AskTheLocal.com: Welcome to the neighborhood, but with a warning: This neighborhood is not yet gentrified
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Just a small correction: links to retailers’ webpages & more product info are available: the titles and images of AskTheLocal results link to the retailers’ product web pages for more product information.