I noted with interest the announcement by the Google Places program of a new free service whereby Google will send a professional photographer to a small retailers to take interior photos that will appear on their Google business profiles. This is in addition to the well-known Google Street View program which has been photographing the exterior of businesses nationwide for several years now.


Google Places also allows the over four million businesses that have claimed their listings to add hours of operation, sales, events and coupons. It's all part of an ambitious effort to create a national yellow pages that will leave legacy yellow pages in the dust, especially since these business profiles are physical web pages that also appear in the main Google search index and in the opinion of some, float to the top of search results pages suspiciously often.

This is enormously threatening to the big yellow pages publishers. With enough traction, Google could start to charge a modest amount for these listings and in my view could end up the nation's largest (and perhaps only) yellow pages publisher.

That's all very interesting and significant, but I think there is an even more fascinating evolution afoot. A whole host of companies are trying to put small business inventory data online (look at companies like milo.com and of course Google has a toe in the water here as well). Hook real-time inventory to a retailer's website, add e-commerce functionality, and presto whammo, that little retailer starts to sport many of the advantages of purely online retailers. The local business arguably holds an edge though, because it can make a local delivery faster than a pure online retailer, and customers can even pick up items if they prefer.

Not to be outdone however, pure online retailers are now moving into same-day delivery. You may recall the announcement by Amazon last year of its Local Express Delivery option that provides same-day delivery in selected major cities. Now a start-up in the U.K. called Shutl has launched a service that seamlessly links local retailers with courier services that will deliver merchandise to customers in 60-90 minutes.

These are just a few examples of how the business of retail is being revolutionized, and all this transformation creates opportunities. Google is chasing this market from a number of different angles, including a play to become a true national yellow pages. But there's room for smaller players as well. Shutl, for example, is not a courier company. It makes arrangements with courier services, databases their rates and coverage areas, and serves as a sophisticated matchmaker between retailers and these delivery services. Milo is a huge database that matches sellers with buyers at the product level. It's all about making the buying process faster and more efficient, and nobody knows organizing markets and uniting buyers and sellers like data publishers.