Local, like social, the customer and the store, goes in and out of fashion. Ian Jindal ponders the latest incarnation of ‘local-ness’ and how it’s set to form a key battlefront in the next iterations of eBay, Google and Amazon’s quest for dominance.
THIS STORY starts with Shutl , a rather wonderful startup from the talented Tom Allason, that’s long been a favourite at IR Towers. Shutl is a service that aggregates local courier capacity (assessed by price and capability) and links to retailers’ local store inventory, thereby offering 60-90 minute delivery of products to customers. Shutl’s genius was not only in creating the service, but in getting major retailers starting with Argos to brand the service clearly as Shutl’s own.
I had a 50p bet that Shutl would/ should be acquired by Google . My reasoning was that a Google acquisition would have blended the “findingness” of Google (since they have the real-ish time stock feeds from retailers) with the “gettingness” of Shutl. This could have made Google a one-stop shop for getting your hands on product, from thought to hand, as it were.
This would have driven two types of retail in particular: the first case is where the customer has an existing notion of their local shops and just wants delivery; the second is where the product is undifferentiated - for example if I’ve dropped hoisin sauce on my white shirt and I need a replacement for an evening event, I’m indifferent between a cluster of brands and retailers, provided I can get the shirt now!
eBay’s acquisition of Shutle is however of equal - perhaps more dramatic - importance for retailers. Under their newish VP for the UK, Tanya Lawler , eBay has been making a major push to feature fullpriced goods from manufacturers and retailers. No longer solely a customer-to-customer marketplace for second-hand or surplus goods, eBay is increasingly competing with Amazon to lure marketplace vendors to focus on eBay’s platform. Amazon’s 2 million marketplace vendors are dwarfed by eBay’s 25 million, and changes to eBay’s charging structure (e.g. the first 50 listings each month will be free) further address Amazon’s primacy as a route to market for small and niche players.
Taken in the round, the incredible liquidity of products (new and old) and customers (young and old) the addition of a fearsome delivery capability could make eBay a goto place for goods. Marketplace has been a significant contributor to Amazon’s growth: as a result of the increase in products for sale (funded and managed by marketplace traders) allied to their indomitable Prime delivery, Amazon has set the high-water mark for “getting stuff tomorrow”. eBay has added the new dimension of ‘getting stuff (nearly) now’.
Key to the success of this model is the local, distributed nature of products. In the Amazon model it is centralisation that pays: placing your products in the Amazon warehouses gives you access to their honed delivery capabilities. With eBay the products are distributed in shops, homes, sheds, warehouses around the country – local to (some) customers.
Where there is a match of local products, customers and Shutl coverage there’ll be a new level of service. Amazon is not blind to this and launched in September their Amazon Local affiliate programme in which feeds of local (city-level) products are made available to affiliates. This is a step towards product discovery, but not yet the delivery capability to match local products with customers that day. Not yet!
For retailers, there needs to be a drive to really unlock product and push their stock management and supply chain capabilities. For a year or two the emphasis has been upon thinner coverage in-store, with honed, central operations delivering direct to customer or to store for click and collect. Now we need to add in the ability to sell and fulfil the stock on our shelves, on mannequins and in the (smaller) stock-rooms in each store, van or pallet.
This is not ‘new news’ since the move to real-time stock information has been on the agenda for a while. However, eBay’s acquisition brings to the fore the latent realisation that people’s lives are local, their experience of brands and inspiration is local, and now the local availability and service can meet global ranges and universal availability. The competitive ground has shifted slightly again, and – even as we congratulate Tom and his team at Shutl – we should also celebrate the ongoing innovation in our sector.