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Friday, May 06, 2005

Tales from SES North, Vol. 1: Shop to It Stands on Guard for the True North Strong and Free

Over the next few days I'll try to catch up on a few tidbits from the action packed Search Engine Strategies Toronto show that just concluded.

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"We won't rest... until everyone has the best to offer in shopping at their fingertips! We're the first Canadian shopping engine and we're adding hundreds of products daily," says the homepage copy at ShopToIt.ca, a Canadian shopping search engine that just launched in beta.

This simple, and true(!) value proposition cuts through the clutter of previous half-baked attempts to improve the Canadian online shopping experience.

ShopToIt's only current serious competition, really, is Amazon.ca. There, you can buy books and music with ease (as with Amazon.com), with most of the excellent shipping options you've come to expect. Unfortunately, the product list is significantly smaller than on Amazon.com, so you still need to bring some items across the border and face delays and charges. There are few Canadian "merchant partners," unlike Amazon.com, where you can buy everything from power tools to yoga DVD's.

ShopToIt.ca president Clark Johannson gave a pithy presentation at the SES conference yesterday. With some solid venture backing behind it, the engine itself seems full-featured, and similar to Shopping.com, Pricegrabber, and others that are garnering so much attention in the United States. What is interesting about Calgary-based ShopToIt is that they've studied the space and they vow to make it even easier for users and merchants to deal with the system. Of particular interest were two interesting add-ons they're working on: (1) friendliness to agencies and consultants who may advise many clients on how to get their products listed; and (2) a recognition that Canada's urban populations are in fact unusually concentrated mostly along the U.S. border, resulting in a propensity to enjoy brick-and-mortar experiences, and to physically inspect and/or pick up items. There is talk of a "pick-up service," which sounds similar to what some of the online book retailers are planning to get into. ShopToIt is trying to get ahead of the curve even in a country which may be a year or so behind the curve, which may require patience... but in my opinion the openness to innovation augurs well for them finding a solid niche and staying there.

In addition, the platform is multilingual. About 50% of the listings are currently bilingual, with the goal to reach full bilingualism soon.

ShopToIt will have some competition: that's inevitable. Google's Wendy Muller made it public at SES Toronto that Froogle Canada will be rolling out in beta "in about a month." Since the Froogle.ca domain is owned by someone other than Google, it will be interesting to see how they handle that little hurdle! Will they take the legal or ICANN tribunal route, or buy the domain, or launch under a subdirectory of Froogle.com in an attempt to beat down the price of the domain? Since the cash isn't the main problem for Google, one assumes they may go the tribunal route on principle. The downside there is that they might be rebuffed if they don't have proper trademark protection. The current owner of the domain, 'The Froogle Gourmet,' is bizarrely enough making a few pennies displaying Google AdSense ads. The Froogle.ca homepage is currently written in basic HTML and contains misspellings like "recipe's."

That aside, Froogle Canada looks set to roll out. Google's sales force in Canada already works with larger retailers, and will have relatively little trouble adding them to the Froogle platform. It may take some time, however, for many smaller retailers to cotton onto the value of using shopping search engines to drive traffic. A wide selection -- not just repackaging a few top retailers' offerings -- is what makes shopping search a valuable experience for users.

There is room for more than one player in the Canadian shopping portal space. It'll be up to users to decide, ultimately, whether using ShopToIt gives them a better experience than they can find elsewhere.

ShopToIt.ca goes out of beta and into full launch on July 1. The company says it'll be "giving Canada a birthday present" by launching on Canada Day. Heretofore-beleaguered Canadian online shoppers may consider buying themselves a present to celebrate... sans pesky customs duties.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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