All Aboard the Google Express?

While the world of retail has been gearing up for its most important season of the year, much of the industry has been fixated on one company in particular: Amazon. More specifically, there are questions as to how retail will perform in the face of the increasingly sophisticated, rapidly growing and disruptive, ‘everything for everybody’ shopping platform. And whether your focus is on a collaborative or competitive strategy, there’s no doubt that Amazon is, and will continue to be on your company’s mind throughout the entire holiday season, and well into the New Year.

And yet all the while, an online marketplace from an equally familiar name has quietly been growing somewhat behind the scenes: Google Express. The platform has actually been around since 2013 at significantly smaller scale and availability, but recent news, including a collaboration with both Walmart and Target, has been cultivating more interest in Google’s latest competitive play at Amazon. What we find most intriguing – in addition to the fact that a handful of seemingly competing brands are on the platform – is how little visibility potential interested shoppers currently have to Google Express. Without explicitly searching for, or being familiar with the Google Assistant-powered app, it would be easy to miss Express all together. But with the holidays fast approaching, we have to think that will soon change…

First, some basic facts about Google Express right from the source:

Google Express helps you get your shopping done fast, where you can select items across a variety of popular stores including Walmart, Costco and Target on the app, the Express website, or by voice.

Other retailers currently on the platform include Kohl’s, Payless, PetSmart, Whole Foods (interesting, considering the Amazon acquisition), Lowes and Ace Hardware, totaling about 40 different brands at this time. Some of the draws for shoppers are: the ability to shop multiple brands in one single transaction, access to free shipping (so long as the order meets the minimum threshold), and a range of convenient delivery options, including same day, next day and 2-day. Additionally, shoppers will be able to create item lists, submit orders and track order status through voice, using their Google Home device or the Google Express App (powered by Google Assistant). Is this sounding familiar?

Need anything from the store?

The buzz around Walmart and Google’s recent partnership came primarily from a town hall session at this year’s Advertising Week, where Marc Lore, Walmart’s CEO of US E-Commerce and Sridhar Ramaswamy, Google’s Senior VP of Ads and Commerce, sat down to discuss the future of retail, the importance of voice activation and ultimately how the two have a vision to bring some heat to Amazon. Shortly after, Google released an ad campaign exclusively across its own advertising properties with the tagline “Need anything from the store?”, that showcases the revamped Google Express to the world, but makes the retailers the real heroes and the focus. It positions Google as a friend to brands on the platform, though for Google Express to ever be considered a real competitor to Amazon, some would argue it needs to stand out as its own shopping marketplace brand, just as Amazon does.

Why build a marketplace?

At the core of Google is its Search advertising chops. While Amazon certainly lags behind AdWords in terms of sophistication and variety of ad solutions, the platform is fundamentally changing how consumers search for, and shop products. As it stands, Google continues to lose share of product searches to those who begin their search on Amazon instead, which gives them less opportunities to serve ads on those queries – less dollars for Google. With their own multibrand marketplace, Google can position itself to compete directly with Amazon, taking back some of that Search share.

But it also raises some questions, particularly around how Google intends to promote Express, the brands and their products, when many, if not all of them are actively advertising on Google Shopping and across Google’s other advertising products. Additionally:

  1. Will Google run paid search or PLAs for Google Express? How will it be incorporated into the SERP for increased visibility?
  2. Will PLAs call out the Google Express Store similar to how LIA’s are shown? Will “Google Express Store” show as an additional line within the existing ad unit?
  3. How might this create tension with advertisers?
  4. Will there be a separate Google Express tab? Will it appear somewhere within the Google Shopping tab?
  5. Will Google create a completely new ad format to promote Google Express that appears on the SERP for relevant queries?
  6. Will brands ultimately compete for voice share on different voice queries?
  7. What will the revenue model look like for Google? And if commission based, how will the rates vary?

We hope to have the answers to some of these questions over the upcoming weeks. With Holiday around the corner, we anticipate that Google will launch a more comprehensive ad campaign to raise awareness around Express and promote products – in fact, they’ve already build out a dedicated holiday tab with gift guides and daily discounts and promotions.

What’s in it for the retailers?

For those familiar with the industry, it might seem odd for brands like Target and Walmart to be sharing in strategic talks. Walmart, in particular, has been working to build out its own marketplace brand, though it’s had notorious struggles to shake off the old ‘deep discounting’ persona that parts of the US consumer population know it by. If we look specifically at Google, Walmart and Target, all are at the forefront of elevating customer experiences through great technology – and with voice being a key component in this development, it makes sense for these three to get ahead of the opportunity, while others have previously struggled to make voice more mainstream. Google has explicitly mentioned in the press that data privacy for each retailer on Google Express is of the utmost importance, particularly as it relates to personalized shopping experiences for individual brands and their customers.

But perhaps the greatest takeaway from this collaboration is that, more than ever, Amazon is considered a real threat to the future growth and sustainability of many of today’s top retailers. The initiative demonstrates a willingness to put past differences, and a little bit of competition, aside in order to strive towards the greater good. In this case that’s to beat Amazon.

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