AskTheLocal is a new shopping search engine that allows users to search for products in their local area, with the intention of directing customers to the offline - rather than online - store.
The site aims to emulate the success in the US of sites like ShopLocal.com, which reached 1.8 million visits per month just a year after its launch in August 2004.We caught up with AskTheLocal co-founder Peter Abrahamson to ask a few questions about the new site...
Could you tell us about the site and the team behind it?
"AskTheLocal! was started in July 2004 by a husband and wife team, although the public launch is happening at the moment and has not been widely known about until now. The idea for the site was considered in the late 90's when the key developers were together on a former online venture, Mobilemaps, which was essentially a precursor to Google Local/Google Earth."
"Our CEO, Paula Abrahamson, crystallized the local shopping search concept in a way that everyone could understand. She dropped out of university to dedicate her efforts to the new venture. The developers are internet veterans, and have been working together on online search and location technologies since 1995."
What are the business goals of the website and how will it attract traffic?
"Our business model is to provide listings of products for free, but offer "check availability" and "reserve product" links on a pay per click basis, and discount coupons on a pay for performance basis.
"AskTheLocal! will partner with various news and portal sites to offer local shopping search, which will generate traffic along with word-of-mouth marketing."
Who do you see as your competition?
"Local shopping search is competing to be the first point of access for shopping, i.e. when you know what you want to buy, but you need to get an item as quickly as possible, at minimal cost, and with minimum stress.
"Competition therefore is from online shopping, yellow pages/business directories, and wandering the high-street looking for an item.
"We believe local shopping search is the most effective first step to try if you want to get something today. If this fails to work for users, then it's possible to try the other alternatives."
How did you raise the money for the start-up costs? Was VC money involved?
"We are self-funded."
How many retailers are listing on the site? Could you give some examples?
"There is a good list of the current retailers on our blog."
Why should people use AskTheLocal rather than something like Yell.com?
"Online business directories (also known as local search sites) such as Yell.com find businesses, whereas local-shopping search sites, such as AskTheLocal, find products.
"Using online business directories, such as Yell.com, for shopping purposes still involves calling a list of shops to find who sells the product you are looking for, which can be frustrating and time consuming.
"On the other hand, after entering your product query and postcode, local-shopping search sites can save you a lot of guesswork since they instantly provide product prices, pictures, and description of the item you are looking for along with pertinent information of the local shops selling them, such as shop addresses, phone numbers, opening hours, and maps."
What about shopping comparison sites such as Kelkoo?
"The key difference is that you can get the product immediately after using a local shopping search, instead of waiting for potentially days and dealing with delivery uncertainties.
"Local-shopping sites take what people love about online shopping, like a wide product selection, price comparison, and convenient search, but do away with what people hate, such as the frustrating wait for online delivery, inability to look products over before buying them, and online security risks.
"While online shopping is certainly valuable in some situations we suspect its popularity is based more on the convenience of the search technology rather than the delivery model (delivery can still be a painful process in online shopping). We reckon that by offering similar search technology to local shoppers the balance of local shopping to online shopping will correct somewhat away from online shopping."
On doing a quick search in my local area, I noticed most of the results came from big retailers like Argos and M&S. Will you be listing smaller local stores as well?
"Yes. In fact we are actively encouraging small shops to become a part of the service, since it offers an effective means for them to compete with larger retailers. As specialist inventory can be found easily on AskTheLocal!, it is possible for a smaller specialist retailer to thrive. See 'Local shopping search saves our small shops?'.
"One of the major problems with a search engine like this is signing up sufficient retailers to make the service indispensable to users. There is a limit to how many sales-people a start-up company can field, and an enormous number of retailers we would need to contact, many of whom are difficult to get hold of.
"We have developed a plan to address this with a referral program that offers an ongoing royalty of 10% of our revenue from a retailer to the person or organization who successfully referred the retailer to AskTheLocal!. This will encourage SEO, SEMs and people with direct contacts with retailers to refer them to us."
How much of the UK is currently covered by the site?
"England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland. There are over 3000 shops covered."
ShopLocal in the US is partnering with DoubleClick for advertising. Do you have a similar arrangement planned for your site?
"We have no plans to include banner or rich media advertising at this time. The enhanced pay-per-click "check availability" links provide retailers with the ability to improve their conversion rates."
E-consultancy's Shopping Comparison Engines Buyer's Guide 2006