In posts past, I've dissed the newspaper industry for not harnessing the Web to build local buying guides and shopping sites, given what I see are built-in advantages to dominate local search. That's why it was with great anticipation that I went to take a look at ShopLocal.com, the newly announced local shopping site from CrossMedia Services, a company jointly owned by newspaper giants Gannett, Knight-Ridder, and Tribune Company.
Rather than a series of local micro-sites, the newspaper giants are thinking big and have built a national site to drive local shopping. But you quickly get to local offers by entering your city name or zip code on the opening screen. Any indications that the site was affiliated with my local newspaper were conspicuously absent, and there wasn't much in the way of explanatory text to position the site to users or even describe its contents and purpose.
I entered a zip code for Philadelphia and got a search results page split into three sections: categories, stores and brands. The category section of the screen gave me a list of yellow pages-like headings from which I could search. The stores section of the screen lists local stores (currently all national chains, buy hey, they're just getting started), and the brands section showed me a list of national brands. For fun, I clicked on "outdoor playsets," and found three offers: CVS offering not playsets, but rather a storewide discount, and two offers from Home Depot for playsets. Under each item was the option to "add to list," which creates a printable list that consumers can take shopping with them to remember what to buy. Under one Home Depot item was the option to "buy online," which didn't sound much like local shopping to me. I clicked on it and found that I could indeed order my playset online. Why do I already feel that ShopLocal may be missing the point?
The other thing I quickly learned about ShopLocal is that it is focused on special offers. Click on a category and you'll be presented with an eclectic list of whatever the various merchants in the category happen to be featuring at that moment -- sort of a giant electronic yard sale. Maybe you want these things, maybe you don't. The classification taxonomy appears to be a work in progress. Under the general heading of "automotive accessories" were only four sub-categories, one highly specific one for "power inverters," two much more general ones and one for "miscellaneous." It's not fatal, but if the site grows, this could quickly become a mess. What's really surprising is that the site doesn't allow users to print coupons to build involvement and help retailers track response -- it merely generates a simple shopping list.
One thing I liked about ShopLocal is that you can attach your email address to any store, brand or category and receive weekly emails with current specials. That's smart marketing, pushing special offers to targeted consumers, but in a way, the power of this feature really makes the rest of the site seem unnecessary.
What I saw with ShopLocal was a national site, utterly devoid of local personality and in no way leveraging or complementing the local paper. The fact that ShopLocal had no local merchants (at least in Philadelphia) I will attribute to its recent launch. However, this is a trap that's befallen other putative local shopping sites --- bringing on true local merchants is a pain compared to selling the big national chains, so guess what: they don't. So ShopLocal's commitment to local shopping will need to be proven over the next few months.
The press release for ShopLocal notes that its mission is to marry online research to offline shopping, making its many convenient links to online ordering a bit mysterious. The press releases also positions ShopLocal as saving the consumer from having to go to numerous different Web sites to find the best deals. But since ShopLocal only lists sale items, it will be a very long time before it has enough mass to present a real comparative shopping experience to consumers.
Another failed online venture by the newspaper industry? Perhaps not. The most interesting thing about the launch of ShopLocal was the sentence in the press release stating "...in the coming months, we expect to announce additional network partners such as portals, online directories, and other newspaper publishers." Will ShopLocal soon be sporting local yellow pages listings? Maybe the newspapers do get it after all.