Sharing real-time inventory data among thousands of small businesses and making it available via a Web search has the potential to seriously change retailing. The issue: It's like herding cats.
That's one of the takeaways from the Kelsey Group's Interactive Local Media conference Wednesday in Philadelphia. While herding cats is difficult it's not impossible, says Kelsey Group senior vice president Matt Booth. "In 10 to 15 years small enterprises will be sharing inventory data and uploading it to the Web. It has gained momentum in the last 6 to 8 months," says Booth.
To a consumer the experience would look like this: Shopper searches Google and finds that the store around the corner has Product A for $49.99. He runs around the corner and gets it. He can also comparison shop among vendors within a 10 mile radius. This approach is common with large retailers, say a data mining happy Home Depot or Lowe's, but to smaller enterprises the concept is foreign.
So who's going to herd these cats? Intuit. The company through its recent acquisition of StepUp Commerce is allowing businesses to push real-time inventory data, product information and pictures to the Web. At the time, Intuit argued that StepUp would help businesses acquire customers. Google will is also likely to play a big role here--especially with its Froogle effort.
Dan Rubinstein, product management director at Google's SME Business Platform unit, also touched on the real-time inventory system. Rubinstein noted he was speaking personally and not for Google, but it's hard to believe that Google, which is integrating its marketing tools directly into Intuit's Quickbooks, isn't going to be a player.
Rubinstein's 10-year vision included a search where a local consumer could view real-time inventory data across merchants and products. "You would know what to buy, when to buy it and where," says Rubinstein. It would also be possible that a person buying New Balance 922 sneakers also bought a certain type of Kenneth Cole dress shows, says Rubinstein.
Think Amazon's recommendation system disseminated across the entire Web.
Behind the scenes, however, this vision is going to take some effort. Standards for SKU level information, aggregation of product candidates and protection of personal information will have to be created.
Also yet to be determined is how the larger vendors will play into this. Although inventory data is pushed through individual retailer sites it's undetermined how the giants would share information.
For the small fries, inventory data and product information will be pushed to the Web with a few QuickBooks clicks. The big guys rely on software from the likes of IBM, NCR and others to manage their point of sale systems. "Real-time local inventory is the future," says Rubinstein.