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The Last Mile: “Local is the new global”

[Web 2.0 Expo 2009:  Web comes to its senses] | [Web 2.0 Expo 2009 – Part 1: Sense of self] | [Web 2.0 Expo 2009 – Part 2: Sense of presence] | [Part 3: Sense of place] | [Web 2.0 Expo 2009 – Part 4: Sense of governance] | [Web 2.0 Expo 2009 – Part 5: Sense of community]

Despite this downturn, there still seem to be travel budgets (last month, at least!) and I loved all the accents I heard at the Web 2.0 Expo 2009. Before the first day had ended, I had heard a combination of Spanish and Portuguese, met 2 Canadians, and sat next to a guy from Stockholm.

Though global awareness makes all the difference, an interesting juxtaposition came to light in the emphasis on “local” across many conference sessions.  While global geo-location remains hot, and co-location is still smart, it’s your personal location and what is directly around you at any given time that is rapidly gaining in prominence and business opportunity. This is called “local.” So is it a small world after all?

Zvents - Discover Things To DoEarly in the conference, Tim O’Reilly nodded to the local evolution of Google’s search results, pointing to the top-of-page local listings in search results that had just launched that day. Turns out that Google, recognizing “local” as a trend, now endeavors to return local results if you don’t put in a geo-modifier when you search. O’Reilly cited this as an example of how Search has evolved through its senses – its paying attention to its vast data — “similar to the kind of thing a baby does by learning from things.”

Hidden inside this trend may be a parable of survival for small, local, and sustainable businesses — not to mention neighborhoods and in the ultimate example, people — in the global age. As Tim O’Reilly asked Google’s Vic Gundotra: “Will Google help small businesses?” Answer: “Yes, but we’re very early in that process.”

The survival of the small *and* the local is what I thought about while watching the intriguing panel called “Why Local is the New Global.” The panelists represented four different local search services — one for local events and three for products which you could locate locally. They brought compelling numbers for the local opportunity:

  • LESS than 4% of retail sales are online (Forrester says 4%) — Local purchasing still trumps
  • Fully *92%* of people that looked online wound up buying offline — No one is buying a major appliance online and having it shipped to their home — they research online, and buy it locally today
  • On one panelist’s mobile search site, users were 17x more likely to click “find nearby” than “buy online”

The Find: Shopping Search - Every Store. Every Product. All At Once.The opportunity they foretell is all local. By poll of the audience, one panelist demonstrated with a sizeable show of hands that “this weekend, you’re likely going to spend money, and you don’t know where it’s going to go yet. You’re at the beginning of the local search / sales experience.” One of the panelists expressed his company’s business model thusly: “We get paid by Nordstrom for all the people we drive into the store.

There’s clearly great long-tail business potential in tackling the challenges in surfacing local results and serving the local demographic. For example, “Most of the search sites find only biggest stores. Search engines need to modify so small businesses can prosper.

Other opportunities to serve small, local retailers include better systems design. “Small retailers have great people but not great systems” — and hence are happier if you come into store rather than using Internet, the panelists said. But could they have it both ways? How could they both serve and be better served both on- and offline?

In addition, it’s a retailer’s challenge to make it clear that by buying locally at perhaps a smaller business, you offer a better experience overall — be it better coffee, better service, a better atmosphere or community.  How can communications be leveraged to help bring this message “home”?

It’s already happening: social networking is providing this long-tail feedback via Yelp, Twitter, Facebook, and soon MySpace and countless others. During the conference, MySpace and Citysearch were in fact reputed to be “teaming up to challenge Yelp.”

If you combine this with the mobile-device-driven experience, we see mobile “intent to purchase” as a ripening business model. “If you’ve got your mobile phone, you’re out and about and ready to shop and buy, and you want it NOW.” There are plenty of ideas surfacing in that area to really serve and influence mobile commerce users as we speak, such as “here’s a coupon via your mobile phone that’s only good for 4 hours.”

One slide from TheFind.com comparing consumer Web vs. mobile usage divulged the following information:

Top-3 popular types of searches – From your computer – http://www.thefind.com/:

  1. Product types – one shoulder dress, gladiator sandals, chandelier earrings
  2. Branded products – Betseyville bags, Ed Hardy clothing, Burberry trench coat
  3. Brands – Puma, Converse, Marc Jacobs, Tony Burch

Top-3 popular types of searches From your mobile device — TheFind iPhone app or http://www.thefind.com/:

  1. Categories of products – shoes, boots, jeans, dresses, books
  2. Brands – Coach, Nike, Gucci, JuicyCouture
  3. Stores – Macys, Target, Walmart, Best Buy, Forever 21

Thus, in Web search, it’s still all about researching “what to buy,” while in mobile search, it’s “how to navigate” – you’re still looking for products, but you are in fact looking for nearest store to buy them in.

I walked away feeling like the four companies participating in this panel session were on to something really intriguing. Here they are:

(I’m sorry I couldn’t always determine who said what in the above – note to organizers: large name tags for panelists, please?)

seeclickfixThere were other examples of “the local opportunity” and local services that I became aware of during the conference. Just a few of these examples:

  • Sarah Milstein in her panel on using Twitter suggested we’d be wise to dive deeper into Advanced Twitter Search – especially “Near this place”
  • Jeff Veen during his keynote gave a shouts-out to EveryBlock – “Big Data is great, but the Web is personal.” Check out the latest news in my personal neighborhood in San Francisco
  • I “met” via Twitter the founder of Troovy, Don Ambridge, who described Troovy as a “Yelp meets Brightkite meets Everyblock”
  • There was also at least one shout-out to SeeClickFix — for the community to report non-emergency issues in their neighborhoods

For a hyper-recent reason why “local” matters, you need look no further than the plethora of recent swine flu map mashups.

“It is possible to follow the latest worldwide news about the swine flu outbreak on the excellent HealthMap,” this blogger says.

swine flu on the mapThe bottom line is that on the globally inter-connected Web, it’s our local coordinates that matter more than ever. While we want to know what services we can buy from around the world and what’s happening with a life-threatening global pandemic, more and more what matters personally is where we can get that product in our city today — or avoid that outbreak.

These services and themes impacted me so profoundly, that I toyed around briefly with the idea of trying to make sense out of all the Web 2.0 Expo key themes from a “local” perspective — community, human presence, government, the self. While I gave up on that, I can’t shake the feeling that a “sense of place” matters now more than ever. Getting to know better our local neighborhoods and our neighbors may be a key to global sustainability, and together with our neighbors, we need to be able to support each other in community when it all comes down to “the last mile.”

PS: Only two left in my series on the Web 2.0 Expo 2009. Hope you join me for the next installment on why Web 2.0 Expo 2009 – Part 4: Sense of governance.

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6 Comments

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  1. Linda Bortolus
    I’m really enjoying this series of your takeaways from the event, especially making them relevant to our community. Thanks for putting all the pieces together and sharing.
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  2. Hermann Burgmeier
    Hi,

    I would not say nobody buys a major appliance online. I did this with a washer (and a big screen TV). I have these things delivered anyway,
    so what is the difference of buying them online?
    I have worked in retail and retailers complained that people go to their shops, look at the merchandise and then buy online (where it is cheaper). I can’t believe that the shopping habits supposedly changed so quickly.

    Regards,
    Hermann

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    1. Moya Watson Post author
      interesting, herman! any others with recent experience buying major appliances on vs. offline?

      i think the guy from TheFind provided the stat that 97% of people who look online end up buying offline — would love for someone from there to step in to this thread, since your experience seems counter to their stats.

      i would also love for someone to confirm or disprove my barely spoken assumption that “local” (and small/midsized local-serving business) is the key to sustainability.  it’s a sense, or a preference i have, but i have no stats or real-world experience to this point.

      at any rate, inside an enterprise as huge as SAP, i love representing the potential of the non-huge enterprise — particularly when we can find a way to better serve its needs.
      -m

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  3. Larisa Hall
    I think the main takeaway is the effect that online sourcing and researching has on offline buying behavior, which is significant.  I’m at a conference today with many online sellers who have multi-channel businesses, and the influence of online browsing to offline buying is a big topic of conversation. I agree that a lot of people wouldn’t necessarily buy the large items online (washing machines, etc).  But the access to information online is transforming the buying process, and is having a big influence.
    -Larisa Hall, TheFind
    @lihall
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    1. Hermann Burgmeier
      Hello Larisa,

      I agree that online resources put buyers in a much better position now. The store (or its employees) used to have the information advantage. Before the internet you used to go to Best Buy and ask the sales person about the features, functions, etc. Now people know already what they want, why they want exactly that. What is the advantage of the offline channel then? It’s not price (online is almost always cheaper) and it’s not knowledge. I am not convinced that the ability to touch or see a product (or to have it immediately) would drive people to accept a possibly higher price at an (offline) store (especially not 97%).
      If a store offers both channels, I can see that people tend to going to the store and get it instead of having it shipped. But to avoid disappointment, the retailers must offer web-order/in-store pickup (like Circuit City did) or allow a store availability query (like IKEA).

      Regards,
      Hermann

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      1. Moya Watson Post author
        thanks for the comments!

        >I am not convinced that the ability to touch or see a product (or to have it immediately) would drive people to accept a possibly higher price at an (offline) store (especially not 97%).

        for myself and according to some of my peers, the drive to “have it now” may be worth an extra premium (particularly if it winds up that buying locally, today, is more sustainable — something i can’t substantiate). though a 97% higher price? yep that’s a bit prohibitive.

        i think the hybrid “online/offline” approach remains really interesting and i think we’ve only just begun to exploit related opportunities…

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