Posted by MiriamEllis

Let’s go back in time 20 years so I can ask you the question,
“How often do you look at a paper map every month?”

Unless you were a cartographer or a frequent traveler, chances
are good that your answer would be, “Hmm, maybe less than once a
month. Maybe once or twice a year.”

But in 2019, I’d wager there’s scarcely a day that goes by
without you using Google Maps when planning to eat out, find a
service provider, or find something fun to do. That web-based map
in your hand has become a given.

And yet, there’s one thing you’re still not using the
Internet for. And it’s something you likely wonder about almost
daily. It starts with the question,

“I wonder who around here carries X?”

A real-world anecdote

After the tragic fires we’ve had this year in California, I
wanted to wet mop all the floors in my house instead of vacuuming
them, due to my concerns about particulate pollution in the air. My
mother recommended I buy a Swiffer. I needed to know where I could
find one locally, but I didn’t turn to the Internet for this,
because the Internet doesn’t tell me this. Or at least, it
hasn’t done so until now. Few, if any, of the local hardware
stores, pharmacies, or big box retailers have reliable, live online
inventory. At the same time, calling these places is often a huge
hassle because staff isn’t always sure what’s in stock.

And so I ended up going to 3 different shops in search of this
particular product. It wasn’t a convenient experience, and it was
an all-too-common one.

The next big thing in local already exists

My real-world anecdote about a wet mop is exactly why I’m so
pleased to be interviewing Mark Cummins, CEO of Pointy.
90% of purchases still take place in physical stores
and it’s
Mark who has seen this gap in available online knowledge about
offline inventory and has now set out to bridge it.

I predict that within a few years, you’ll be using the
Internet to find local inventory as frequently and easily as
you’ve come to use its mapping capabilities. This chat with Mark
explains why.

The real-world roots of an existing local need

Miriam: Mark, I understand that you were formerly a Google
Search Team member, with a background in machine learning, but that
your journey with Pointy began by walking into retail shops and
talking face-to-face with owners. What did these owners tell you
about their challenges in relation to offline/online inventory? A
memorable real-world anecdote would be great here.

Mark: I started thinking about this problem because of an
experience just like your story about trying to find a Swiffer.
I’d recently moved to a new country and I had to buy lots of
things to set up a new apartment, so I had that kind of experience
all the time. It felt like there was a huge gap there that search
engines could help with, but they weren’t.

I had been working at Google developing what became Google Lens
(Google’s image recognition search feature). It felt strange that
Google could do something so advanced, yet couldn’t answer very
basic questions about where to buy things locally.

So I started thinking about ways to fix that. Initially I would
just walk into retailers and talk to them about how they managed
their inventory. I was trying to figure out if there was some
uniform way to bring the inventory information online. I quickly
learned that it was going to be hard. Almost every retailer I spoke
to had a different method of tracking it. Some kept records on
paper. Some didn’t count their inventory at all.

My first idea was a little crazy — I wanted to build a robot
for retailers that would drive around the store every night and
photograph all the shelves, and use image recognition to figure out
the inventory and the prices. I spent some time seriously thinking
about that, but then landed on the idea of the Pointy box, which is
a much simpler solution.

Miriam: Can you briefly describe what a typical Point of Sale
system is like for retailers these days, in light of this being
technology most retailers already have in place?

Mark: Well, I would almost say that there isn’t a typical
Point of Sale system. The market is really fragmented, it sometimes
feels like no two retailers have the same system. There’s a huge
range, from the old-style systems that are essentially a glorified
calculator with a cash drawer, up to modern cloud-connected systems
like Clover, Square, or Lightspeed. It’s very disruptive for
retailers to change their POS system, so older systems tend to stay
in use for a long time. The systems also differ by vertical —
there are specialized systems for pharmacies, liquor stores, etc.
Dealing with all of that variation is what makes it so hard to get
uniform local inventory data.

A simple inventory solution is born

Miriam: So, you spoke with retailers, listened to their
challenges and saw that they already have Point of Sale systems in
place. And Pointy was born! Please, describe exactly what a Pointy
device is, how it solves the problems you learned about, and fits
right in with existing Point of Sales technology.

Mark: Right! It was pretty clear that we needed to find a
solution that worked with retailers’ existing systems. So we
developed the Pointy box. The Pointy box is a small device that
attaches to a retailer’s barcode scanner. Basically it links the
barcode scanner to a website we create for the retailer. Whenever
the retailer scans a product with their barcode scanner, we
recognize the barcode, and list the product on the website. The end
result is live website listing everything in the store — here’s
an example for
Talbot’s Toyland
, a toy store in San Mateo. They have over
ten thousand products listed on their site, without any manual
work.

The experience is pretty much seamless — just plug in Pointy,
and watch your store website build itself. The Pointy box connects
directly via the cell phone network, so there’s really nothing to
set up. Just plug it in and it starts working. New products
automatically get added to your store page, old products get
removed when you no longer sell them, item stock status syncs
automatically. We did quite a bit of machine learning to make that
all automatic. Once the site is live, we also have some SEO and SEM
tools to help retailers drive search traffic for the products they
sell.

Miriam: My understanding is that the Pointy Team had to do a ton
of legwork to put together various product catalogues from which
data is pulled each time a product is scanned so that its
information can be displayed on the web. I’m not familiar with
this concept of product catalogues. What are they, what types of
information do they contain, and what did you have to do to pull
all of this together? Also, is it true that your team hand-reviews
all the product data?

Mark: If you’re working in shopping search, then product
catalogs are really important. Every mass-market product has a
unique barcode number, but unfortunately there’s no master
database where you can enter a barcode number and get back the
product’s name, image, etc. So basically every retailer has to
solve this problem for themselves, laboriously entering the product
details into their systems. Pointy helps eliminate that work for
retailers.

There are some product catalogs you can license, but each one
only covers a fraction of products, and errors are common. We built
a big data pipeline to pull together all of this product data into
a single catalog and clean it up. We automate a lot of the work,
but if you want the highest quality then machine learning alone
isn’t enough. So every single product we display also gets
approved by a human reviewer, to make sure it’s accurate. We’ve
processed millions of products like this. The end result for the
retailer is that they just plug in a Pointy box, scan a product,
and their website starts populating itself, no data entry required.
It’s a pretty magical feeling the first time you see it.
Especially if you’ve spent countless hours of your life doing it
the old way!

Where real-time local inventory appears on the web

Miriam: So, then, the products the retailer scans create the
brand’s own inventory catalogue, which appears on their Pointy
page. What tips would you offer to business owners to best
integrate their Pointy page with their brand website? Linking to it
from the main menu of the website? Something else? And do these
Pointy pages feature SEO basics? Please describe.

Mark: Some retailers use Pointy as their main website. Others
have it as an additional profile, in the same way that they might
have a Facebook page or a Yelp page. The main thing Pointy brings
is the full live inventory of the store, which generally isn’t
listed anywhere else. To integrate with their other web presences,
most just link across from their main sites or social media
profiles. A few also embed Pointy into their sites via an
iframe.

We work a lot on making these pages as SEO-friendly as possible.
The queries we focus on ranking for are things like “product name
near me” or “product name, location.” For example, a query
like “rubber
piggy bank san mateo
” currently has the Pointy page for
Talbot’s Toyland in #1 position. We have an engineering team
working on this all the time, and we’ve actually discovered a few
interesting things.

Miriam: And how does this work when, for example, a product goes
out of stock or goes on sale for a different price?

Mark: We keep that information updated live. The stock status is
updated based on the information from the Pointy box. We also
handle price data, though it depends on what features the retailers
is using. Some retailers prefer not to display their prices
online.

See What’s In Store: Google totally sees the opportunity

Miriam: I was fascinated to learn that Pointy is the launch
partner for Google’s See What’s In Store feature, and readers
can see an example of this with
Talbot’s Toyland
. Can you explain what’s involved for
retailers who want their inventory to appear in the SWIS area of
the Google Business Profile (aka “Knowledge Panel”) and why
this represents such an important opportunity? Also, does the
business have to pay a commission to Google for
inclusion/impressions/clicks?

Mark: This is a pretty exciting feature. It lets retailers
display their full product catalogue and live inventory information
in the Business Profile on the Google search page. It’s also
visible from Google Maps. I’m guessing Google will probably start
to surface the information in more ways over time.

It’s completely free for retailers, which is pretty
interesting. Google Shopping has always been a paid service, so
it’s notable that Google is now offering some organic exposure
with this new feature.

I think that this is going to become table stakes for retailers
in the next year or two, in the same way that having your opening
hours online is now. Consumers are simply going to expect the
convenience of finding local product information online. I think
that’s a good thing, because it will help local businesses win
back customers that might otherwise have gone to Amazon.

We’ve worked a lot with Google to make the setup experience
for local retailers very simple. You just link your Pointy account
to Google, and your live inventory appears in the Google Business
Profile. Behind the scenes we do a lot of technical work to make
that happen (including creating Merchant Center accounts, setting
up feeds, etc). But the user experience is just a few clicks.
We’ve seen a lot of uptake from Pointy users, it’s been a very
popular feature. We have a bit more detail on it
here
.

What about special retail scenarios?

Miriam: So, basically, Pointy makes getting real-world inventory
online for small and independent retailers who just don’t have
the time to deal with a complicated e-commerce system. I understand
that you have some different approaches to offer larger
enterprises, involving their existing IT systems. Can you talk a
bit about that, please?

Mark: Yes, some larger retailers may be able to send us a direct
feed from their inventory systems, rather than installing Pointy
boxes at every POS location. We aim to support whatever is easiest
for the retailer. We are also directly integrated into modern cloud
POS systems like
Clover
, Square,

Lightspeed
, Vend, and
others. Users of those systems can download a free Pointy app from
their system’s app store and integrate with us that way. And for
retailers not using those systems, they can use a Pointy box.

Miriam: And what about retailers whose products lack
labels/barcodes? Let’s say, a farm stand with constantly-changing
seasonal produce, or a clothing boutique with hand-knit sweaters?
Is there a Pointy solution for them?

Mark: Unfortunately we’re not a great fit for those kind of
retailers. We designed the experience for retailers who sell
barcoded products.

Miriam: You’re a former Google staffer, Mark. In local search,
Google has become aggressive in taking a cut of an increasing
number of local consumer actions and this is particularly hard on
small businesses. We’ve got Local Service Ads, paid ads in local
packs, booking buttons, etc, all of which struggling independent
businesses are having to pay Google for. Right now, these retailers
are eager for a competitive edge. How can they differentiate
themselves? Please, share tips.

Mark: It’s true, lots of channels that used to be purely
organic now have a mix of organic and paid. I think ultimately the
paid ads still have to be ROI-positive or nobody will use them, but
it’s definitely no fun to pay for traffic you used to get for
free.

On the positive side, there are still plenty of openings to
reach customers organically. If small businesses invest in staying
ahead of the game, they can do very well. Lots of local product
searches essentially have no answer, because most retailers
haven’t been able to get their inventory online yet. It’s easy
to rank well for a query when you’re the only one with the
answer. There’s definitely still an opening there for early
adopters.

“Pointing” the way to the future

Miriam: Finally, Pointy has only been available in the US since
2016, and in that short amount of time, you’re already serving 1%
of the country’s retailers. Congratulations! What does the near
future look like to you for retailers and for Pointy? What do you
see as Pointy’s mission?

Mark: We want to bring the world’s brick-and-mortar retailers
online and give them the tools they need to thrive. More than 90%
of retail goes through brick and mortar stores, so there’s no
reason they shouldn’t have an amazing technology platform to help
them. The fragmentation and difficulty of accessing data has held
everyone back, but I think Pointy has a shot at fixing that.

Miriam: Thank you, Mark. I believe Pointy has what it takes to
be successful, but I’m going to wish you good luck, anyway!

Summing up

In doing this interview, I learned a ton from Mark and I hope
you did, too. If a local retailer you market is seeking a
competitive advantage in 2019, I’d seriously be considering early
adoption of Google’s See What’s In Store feature. It’s prime
Google Business Profile (formerly Knowledge Panel) real estate, and
so long as SWIS is free and Pointy is so affordable, there’s a
pretty incredible opportunity to set yourself apart in these early
days with a very modest investment.

I’m feeling confident about
my prediction that we’re on the verge of a new threshold in user
behavior
, in terms of people using local search to find local
inventory. We’ll all have the enjoyment of seeing how this plays
out over the next couple of years. And if you heard it first at
Moz, that will be extra fun!

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