I’m one of those great dads who decide, late on a Friday afternoon, to do something special for the kids over the weekend. I’m also one of those dads whose imagination for special activities to make the kids happy rarely extends beyond buying them stuff. So there we were last week, looking at Amazon for something for my 2-year-old son. He likes cars, and he’s lately been interested in creating elaborate scenarios for his toy vehicles. As I browsed I came upon something called BluTrack, a long, flexible race-car track that can be assembled into a variety of shapes. It seemed like a toy we could play with together and good for at least 20 minutes of fun, which for a 2-year-old is pretty much all the time in the world.
The only trouble was how to get it. I’d missed Amazon’s one-day shipping deadline, so I’d have to find the item in a store. But how do you find a specific item in a local store? And how do you find the store nearest you with the lowest price on said item, or the store with the most in stock? There aren’t any good ways. You can try Googling for an item and your city, but unless it’s a product of widespread interest, you won’t find much. You can use a product search engine like Google Shopping, but those focus mainly on online stores, not places near your house. (Google Shopping does include some physical retailers, but mostly the big ones that don’t include hard-to-find toys like BluTrack.)
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the item you want for will have a Web page listing stores that carry it. This worked for BluTrack—through the toy’s site, I found a toy store about 20 miles away that supposedly carried it. But it won’t work for most products, especially food. (Good luck trying to find Sichuan peppercorns nearby.) Even if you do find a local store that carries what you’re looking for, you’ve got to do some more legwork before leaving the house: calling the store to check that the item is actually in stock, confirming how much it costs, and, if it’s popular, asking if they can set one aside for you.
This is such a hassle. People frequently accuse me of hating locally owned stores—not without some justification, I guess—but how could you blame me? Discovery is the soul of shopping; you can’t buy something if you can’t find it. But the inventory at most local stores—especially the non-chain mom-and-pops, from toy shops to stationery shops to bookstores to cafes—is completely hidden. Their stuff is not online, not searchable, not Tweetable, not reviewable, not orderable, and not price-checkable. Today, that’s a fatal commercial sin; when most shopping decisions begin online, an item on a store shelf with no corresponding online presence might as well not even exist.
Someone is trying to fix this problem. This week the mobile-payment startup Square launched a brilliant new service, Square Market, that allows merchants to put their inventory online at the flip of a switch. Stores that use Square as their point-of-sale registers have already entered their inventory information into the software; they use the system to keep track of what’s selling well, what’s not, and when they’ve got to restock. Now, Square is letting the stores turn that information into online item pages.
Say I run a local coffee shop where, in addition to drinks, I sell a variety of fresh-roasted beans. In my Square Register, I can now turn on the e-commerce switch for each bag of beans. This creates a Square Market page for each bag—a well-designed, easy-to-navigate page where shoppers can buy the beans (for shipping or pickup). The page can be passed around on social networks, pops up in Google searches, and shows customers how awesome my store is so that they can come by to take a look.
In an interview, Square founder Jack Dorsey told me that many Square merchants had been requesting this feature. “I flip a switch and suddenly everything I sell is online,” Dorsey says. “I have this online presence that elevates and amplifies everything that I do." For small businesses, it’s a drop-dead easy way to get on the Web: They don’t have to sign up for a Web hosting service and don’t have to pay a Web designer. The only fee is Square’s 2.75 percent cut of online purchases, the same fee it charges for in-store purchases. The service greatly increases a local store’s reach, for no extra money and no extra work.
But the best thing about Square Market is its potential for lazy shoppers like me. When a Square merchant turns on the e-commerce switch for an item, that item goes into Square’s directory of products, making it searchable by location. If I go to Square Market and search for coffee beans or BluTracks or Sichuan peppercorns, I’ll be shown all the nearby stores that have them in stock. I can make my purchase online and pick it up later. “There’s this great Amazon-like experience we can bring to local merchants,” says Ajit Varma, Square’s director of discovery.
One small problem: At the moment, the results page for a search like “coffee beans” will bring up the shops that carry beans. That’s helpful, but not as handy as showing you a list of various kinds of beans from many different local stores. Square says that kind of item-by-item results page will come soon, after it gets more items in its e-commerce inventory.
And that gets to the bigger issue with Square Market—it’s very spare. There are a lot of Square merchants in big cities, but once you head out to less dense areas, you won’t find many Square-enabled stores. I live in the heart of Silicon Valley and I’m Square-deprived—if I search for local coffee shops on Square, I get two or three within a few miles, and the rest are in San Francisco, about 30 miles away. This is a chicken-and-egg problem: Stores would get more out of services like Square Market if there were more shoppers using it, but more shoppers won’t come until there are more stores.
So it’s going to take time for Square’s service to become truly useful for most people. It might never happen. But I hope that Square Market at least lights a fire under Google—whose mission, after all, is to make the world’s information searchable. The stuff on store shelves is valuable information. It should be online. And Google, more than anyone else, could do it really well. Get to it, Larry Page!