SEARCH engines made it easy to find items at online stores. Now the Internet is poised to solve a more vexing problem: finding items while you are at the mall.
Technology companies like NearbyNow of Los Altos, Calif., and GPShopper in New York have introduced mobile Internet applications that allow shoppers to use their cellphones and PDAs to search the inventory and prices at the local mall, save them wasted steps and, sometimes, turn up last-minute bargains and promotions.
GPShopper’s Slifter service for mobile product searches was first to the market last year, but some analysts believe that NearbyNow’s mall-centric approach has more immediate potential.
NearbyNow first tested its system last holiday season in the Eastridge mall, in San Jose, Calif. The mall posted about 10 signs prompting shoppers to send a six-digit text message to the address “Nearby” for sales information. Shoppers received a welcome message from the mall, listing the number of sales in progress and asking users to type in the brand or product they were seeking.
The service then returned a list of stores with the item, including prices and relevant sales.
“If you type in jeans, you’ll get 90 stores, but if you type in Levi’s 501s, you might get 14 or 15,” said Scott Dunlap, NearbyNow’s chief executive. “We have every product in the mall, which is typically 600,000 to 800,000 items.”
Mobile shopping applications may sound like a novelty appealing only to shopping-crazed teenagers, but they are at the cutting edge of an increasingly competitive local online shopping services. Companies like ShopLocal, StepUp and others have sought to aggregate and display local inventory information online, to support the 94 percent of commerce that still happens offline.
Greg Sterling, principal of Sterling Market Intelligence, a commerce consultancy, said that NearbyNow is tying together online and offline shopping. “Others are trying, but so far nobody’s had the kind of success they’ve had,” he said. “They’re definitely onto something.”
Mr. Dunlap of NearbyNow said more than 2,000 Eastridge shoppers conducted searches from their mobile devices on Dec. 16, the day the service began. The most interesting results came from a handful of promotions the company tested that day, along the lines of Kmart’s blue light specials. Everyone who conducted searches was sent, at specific times, offers to win movie tickets or $25 gift cards if they were among the next 10 people to buy items from a given store.
“It was a little scary,” Mr. Dunlap said. “We watched about 100 people answer their phones and walk straight for the store. Depending on the offer, you could start a stampede.”
Predictably enough, teenagers bought the cheapest item in the stores. “But you’d also see adults buying $100 shoes,” Mr. Dunlap said. The average total purchase for the promotion topped $25.
NearbyNow, which earns about $1 from retailers or manufacturers each time someone views a Web page for the advertiser’s product, now operates in 13 malls, but just one in the Northeast, the Maine Mall in South Portland. But Mr. Dunlap said the company would cover 20 by the end of this month, and 100 by November.
Melinda Holland, senior vice president for business development at General Growth Properties in Chicago, which owns the Eastridge mall, said NearbyNow’s service is “a significant evolution” in the company’s Internet offerings.
“Today, people might go to Gap.com to see colors and styles, then go to the mall after that,” Ms. Holland said. “This is the next step, where you can look for that small-size T-shirt in the Eastridge mall, so we love it.”
GPShopper’s Slifter service lets shoppers use their mobile devices to search for products at more than 20,000 retailers. According to Alex Muller, the company’s chief executive, more than 100,000 people use Slifter, typically searching for goods several times monthly.
At the moment, Mr. Muller said, Slifter relies on users to type in their ZIP codes along with a description of the item, but soon the service will recognize the user’s location and save that step.
One potential sticking point for services like these, and new ones from NearbyNow, Krillion, BrandHabit and others, is that retailers typically do not have the sophisticated technology to track their stores’ inventories and transfer that information to their own Web sites, let alone those of other companies. Web sites can ill-afford to tell shoppers that a product is available, only to have customers find out at the mall that it is not.
NearbyNow, which on its Web site offers the same mall-search service it features for mobile devices, gets around this problem by helping users reserve items. A NearbyNow representative then calls stores to check availability, and sends e-mail messages to customers to confirm the reservation.
NearbyNow last year received $2.5 million in financing from Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a leading Silicon Valley firm that backed Hotmail, Skype and Overture, among others. Krillion raised $3.1 million from Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, a high-profile firm that backed Napster and the Knot, among others.
To show how much this market resembles trench warfare at the moment, Krillion has spent the last year focusing on a single category: major appliances. Krillion pulls data from the Web pages of appliance retailers and manufacturers, and integrates it with geographical data of its own, to build 275 million product-specific Web pages. Krillion users can search those pages for product specifications and prices in their local area.
On product pages, users are presented with a “click to call” button, connecting prospective customers with salesclerks at the store so they can ask questions or check on availability.
Joel Toledano, Krillion’s chief executive, said Krillion charges companies to advertise on the search results pages and elsewhere on the site. He said Krillion would add consumer electronics in the coming months.
Industry analysts said that as online services improve at helping consumers find what they want offline, the e-commerce industry could see its ascendancy wane. That puts online commerce “in a backup position,” Mr. Sterling, of Sterling Market Intelligence, said.
“The Internet, which was going to enable any business to sell to anyone in the world,” he said, “ultimately may be used mostly to do the opposite — provide consumers with information on where to buy locally.”