Can Google’s Shopping Actions Take On Amazon?

In between stories last week about Jack Dorsey saying that bitcoin will be the world’s single digital currency in about 10 years and Facebook’s meltdown over its latest data scandal, you might have missed Google’s announcement of Shopping Actions.

Shopping Actions is Google’s big shot across Amazon’s bow, giving consumers access to a universal shopping cart to fill and then buy the things they find when searching the web. Payment is made using the payment credentials that consumers have stored with Google (courtesy of the Google Pay upgrades announced last month), including payments credentials stored at a merchant site via the Chrome browser.

Google’s universal shopping cart is channel-agnostic: Consumers can start their search on a desktop computer, jump to mobile to add more items and then to Google Assistant to add even more to their cart, check out and have them shipped by the merchant.

The program also gives participating retailers a chance to attach themselves to those search queries via sponsored posts.

For example, a consumer searching for terra cotta flower pots might first see those flower pots sponsored by Walmart or Target. They can choose which one they want, put that item into their cart from the Google search page and buy it without clicking through to Target’s or Walmart’s (or whichever retailer she chooses) website. Fulfillment and shipping remain the responsibility of the retailer. Walmart, Target, Ulta Beauty and 1-800 Flowers are among the early adopters of Google’s new service.

Shopping Actions, Google said, is a response to the 85 percent increase they’ve seen over the last two years in the number of searches asking where an item can be bought. Google also said in the blog post announcing the launch that 44 percent of voice-initiated searches are for things consumers buy weekly, such as groceries and household items. The convenience of having a single cart to put those items in and then buy them, Google claims, gives consumers more — and more convenient — shopping and payment options.

Google reports the retailers that have tested Shopping Actions have seen their basket sizes increase by 30 percent, with higher-than-average conversion rates than using sponsored advertisements alone. Unlike Google’s pay-per-click ad model, Google is paid a percentage of the sale when it’s made, just like Amazon Marketplace.

But for Shopping Actions and Google to live up to its billing as commerce’s “next big thing,” it will have to convince the more than 60 percent of American consumers who start their search for what to buy on Amazon to break that habit and instead use Google to start — and finish — their search there for what to buy.

That will depend on how successful its participating retailers are in delivering an experience that meets or beats what Amazon offers consumers today — and how many consumers actually do turn to Google (not Amazon and not their favorite merchant) to find something they want to buy.


Keeping the Eye on the Buy

As I’ve written many times, there’s a dearth of Amazon alternatives in the market today.

That’s because Amazon isn’t just an online retailer anymore; it’s a marketplace of sellers wrapped around a loyalty proposition so powerful that tens of millions of consumers pay to belong — and keep paying every year to continue to receive those benefits because it’s so convenient and so reliable.

Amazon is online and offline — but not just in groceries. Amazon has its own bookstores and high-tech convenience stores and partnerships with some of the same offline players with which it’s competing. Kohl’s, for example, will accept Amazon returns in its stores and sells Amazon-branded hardware.

Amazon has a pervasive voice assistant — Alexa — that started on Amazon-branded devices, but has quickly moved into lots of other ones too, including cars, appliances and smart home devices. Alexa is also a mobile app on smartphones and wearables and is much more than an artificial intelligence bot. People speak about Alexa as if she’s a member of their family. Don’t know what to have for dinner tonight? Ask Alexa. Don’t know what kind of new car to buy? Ask Alexa. Don’t know how badly your NCAA brackets have been busted? Ask Alexa. Need a joke to take your mind off how badly your brackets are busted? Ask Alexa.

Alexa, in other words, is fast becoming part of the consumer’s day-to-day life.

Alexa’s ecosystem is open to anyone with an interest in teaching her new skills. That’s spawned the interest of developers across just about every nook and cranny of every industry segment to find new ways of using Alexa and Amazon to find and buy a wide range of products and services — from healthcare to banking to bill pay to retail to insurance to office supplies.

Amazon itself is available to consumers regardless of what device or operating system they use. Or whether the retailer they want to order from has an app. Amazon Places enables food orders for any quick-service restaurant with a website. I can ask Alexa to help me find and buy stuff from Best Buy, and she will gladly oblige — no app needed.

Amazon has programs in place that help merchants to be successful. Amazon manages fulfillment for merchants who want and need them to and provides working capital to its sellers to help them grow their businesses.

All those things set the bar pretty high for anyone wanting to cut in on Amazon’s turf. The high degree of consumer trust, the ease of one-click checkout and the ubiquity of Amazon (and now Alexa) across devices, channels and operating systems — and products to buy — has spawned “The Amazon Effect” that has become retail’s nightmare, more generally.


The Big Bet on Scale

Google, now with Shopping Actions, is making a bet on scale that it can.

Scale it hopes comes from turning its search engine into the world’s biggest shoppable marketplace.

Scale it hopes comes from getting the right roster of participating retailers on board to pull adopters in early on — that drive sales to merchants that keeps them sticky and encourages more to join.

Scale it hopes comes from giving retailers access to a voice commerce platform with a large and growing user base that competes with Alexa.

Scale it hopes comes from the billions of searches done by consumers today that can drive new customers to merchants — and that they can monetize.

Scale it hopes comes from all the apps and utilities beyond search where Google is now enabling commerce, including Maps, Waze and Gmail, that add more commerce touchpoints for consumers and merchants.


Shopping Actions and Consumer Reactions

It’s an interesting strategy.

In 2015, only 40 percent of the consumers we surveyed said they started their search for what to buy on Google.

Three years later, Google said searches for “where can I buy…” are up by a lot — suggesting that consumers may be looking to Google to help them find a particular product type or brand that they don’t believe Amazon has — or can get to them when they need it.

Products that, through Google’s Shopping Actions, they can buy via its universal shopping cart or order using Google Assistant and pay, via Google, using a merchant-branded payment method linked to the merchant’s native loyalty program.

With orders passed to the individual retailer to process and fulfill.

And that will be where the Shopping Actions’ rubber will literally meet the road.

Retail is being reshaped by many forces, including changing consumer preferences. Consumers want to shop at retailers that sell the things they want to buy. They establish their favorites based on lots of little things but start their shopping journey with retailers they know, trust and make it convenient for them to do business.

In an on-demand world, convenience means delivering what consumers want to buy on demand too. That means that retail’s success largely, and Shopping Actions more specifically, will be defined by how well its participating retailers are able to manage that last mile, including using same-day delivery via inventory in their stores as a competitive advantage.

Managing logistics and optimizing that last mile is why Target bought Shipt in December of 2017 and was among the early pioneers of buy online, pick up in-store.

It’s why Walmart — the king of supply chain logistics — has turned its attention to strategies intended to sharpen its delivery efforts. That includes experimenting with a lot of things, including using employees and Uber drivers to deliver purchases to consumers, establishing a program called Wam! (that a patent filing says is a new retail and grocery delivery platform) and making investments to expand curbside pickup for groceries and other purchases.

All important “make or break” Shopping Actions experiences that, unlike Amazon, are today largely out of Google’s ability to control.

That’s a risk to Google and the success of its Shopping Actions platform. The first time a Shopping Actions purchase fails to get to a consumer on time could be the last time she ever uses it.

Granted, it’s very early days, and Google has obviously been investing in a vision and technologies that give retailers an Amazon alternative and Google a strategy for competing with Amazon in the commerce trifecta: search, payments and online advertising.

Their first plank was a decision to improve and standardize the Shopping carousel at the top of the search return page to make it more consumer-friendly — and therefore more retailer-friendly.

The second was to create and then open its voice commerce platform, Google Assistant, to merchants to advance their own voice commerce initiatives and to developers to write skills.

The third was to standardize its disparate payments options into a single, rebranded and vastly expanded and enhanced Google Pay.

The fourth was standardizing checkout via search by creating a universal shopping cart with a consistent checkout experience and Google-enabled payments options that include merchant-branded payments methods.

Could the fifth be the standardization of delivery using one of Alphabet’s Moonshot initiatives, Project Wing?

Project Wing has been testing the use of drones to deliver packages to suburban areas — most recently in Australia — and has hired a former Amazon exec and Staples CTO to commercialize that program. Shopping Actions now has merchant partners with the capacity to invest in their own logistics capabilities. Most retailers don’t and therefore can’t. To make search shoppable, Google has to solve not just for the shopping and paying part of the experience, but also for the delivery part of the experience that enables the very long tail of merchants.

And could the sixth be a partnership that helps them deliver credit and financing options that help sellers become successful?

All things that remain to be seen.

Regardless, it’s nice to see competition emerging in a space that many have ceded long ago to Amazon. Competition, as I said last week, is the oxygen that markets need to thrive, expand and improve. This competition isn’t just about Google and Amazon; it’s about Amazon and the rest of retail, with Google as its enabling platform.

Perhaps now we’ll see the retail games really begin.