Google Shopping Digital Merchandising in Run Specialty

Learn the benefits of taking advantage of Google Shopping - a comparison-shopping engine and an ad platform that permits shoppers to find, compare, and view physical products among different retailers.

Digital merchandising refers to how you position, promote, and market your products online. Running Insights readers are experts at merchandising in the physical world and going instantly virtual in 2020 has made many experts in the digital world, as well. Despite differences in the “worlds,” the goal remains identical: Reduce friction for customers to shop, view, bundle, learn, compare options, and ultimately buy products.

Accordingly, digital merchandising is a broad topic. It includes all areas where you would visually present your products online, including your online store, digital ads, and social media promotion.  Traditionally, display advertising has been the obvious option for visuals. Display advertising’s main strength is high-funnel awareness, not lower-funnel product exploration and comparison. Shopping, however, is precisely tuned for exploration and comparison, and is a direct tactic to drive customers and prospects to your online store.

There is no real-world analog for the customer journey enabled by Google, Amazon, eBay, Etsy, etc. Two decades ago, a curious customer would find a retailer that ought to carry a particular product in the yellow pages. They would inquire by phone and discuss options. If the conversation were a good one, they would physically go to the store to make a purchase.

Now, in the online world, it is as if every product has its own listing in the yellow pages. Instead of just one “number,” there might be dozens – including each gender/size/color permutation, as well as every store that carries the product.  Google Shopping is the easiest and lowest cost “yellow pages” to join for run specialty retailers.

Google Shopping

Google Shopping is a combination of a comparison-shopping engine and an ad platform that permits shoppers to find, compare, and view physical products among different retailers. As mentioned, Google Shopping results are visual – thumbnail pictures of the product, and link back to your online store. Google Shopping comes in two flavors: paid media and free listings. Run specialty retailers should use both.

In 2018, Google’s own research indicated that 63% of all shopping journeys began online. Meanwhile, Google dominates the search function – 88% US market share, according to Statcounter GlobalStats.  Taken together, these measurements send a clear message: Be on Google.  Of course, you are already on Google since your website is reachable via search. If someone were to search now, they would obtain your website and maybe a paid search ad you have active.  Shopping provides a third outcome in these otherwise text-heavy search results. In addition to a link to your webpage, and a text keyword search result, shopping provides a visual, picture of the product found.

Although Amazon remains the dominant player in shopping, it can be more cumbersome for run specialty retailers to onboard, given key constraints, especially as related to brand permissions to list their items on Amazon.  Google has some other unique advantages. According to Wordstream, 35% of Google product searches result in sales within five days, compared to Amazon’s 20%. Additionally, according to Wordstream, Amazon transactions take an average of 26 days to convert, versus 20 days for Google.

Google Shopping paid media is an extension of Google Adwords, where the campaign setup most closely resembles that of search campaigns, and the two types of ads should be deployed in tandem. Just as retailers should always operate a “store near me” type of paid search campaign, they should also have an ever-present shopping campaign. Both types of campaigns are designed to attract high-intent customers, who know what they are looking for. However, unlike search, there are no keywords to select. Instead, Google organizes all products according to its own taxonomy and the literal titles and descriptions of products. Google recognizes your products by virtue of a product feed you set up.

Another successful play for shopping ads we have used with our clients is to create a funnel for long-tail remarketing. First, choose a handful of fairly “Google-worthy” products – high profile, new, hard-to-find.  Second, put a significant budget toward the shopping ads for a short period of time. Typical spend will be 20-30% of product value, for no more than five to seven days. While the campaign will earn some sales, it will earn many, many more clicks. Those clicks can be mined at very low cost for the next two months in remarketing.  A related tactic is to use the shopping channel to wind out older inventory. “Most of our success has been on the clearance level,” says Gareth Wilford at Athletic Annex in Indianapolis.

While paid media is recommended, it need not be your entry point to the Google Universe.  Google provides two free types of listings: Google Surfaces, and Local Inventory Shopping. A Google Surface is any Google-owned platform, e.g., Google Search, Maps, Images, YouTube, etc.  Rolled out just in time for the pandemic, free surface ads are a win-win for Google and for retailers.  For Google, it fills product-holes in the search experience. Additionally, it entices retailers to set up product feeds to Google, and be ready to create paid shopping campaigns at any time. For retailers, it provides an opportunity for free online real estate that helps level the playing field with chain and box stores.

Local Inventory Shopping is Google’s bridge between the online and brick-and-mortar worlds. Drawing from data that contains products actually stocked on your shelves, these ads are designed to send online shoppers to your physical store based on the online shopper’s proximity to it.  This online-to-offline feature is different from Amazon and other market shopping sites. Inventory data requires a verification process with Google to ensure you actually have listed products on your shelves at the advertised prices. For select items, you must submit pictures for proof. Lance Muzslay of Sole Sports Running Zone in Phoenix, Arizona credits these local features to “[help] drive people into stores, from the local search standpoint. We ask people what brought them in and products rendering locally is positive exposure that drives people in.”

How to Set It Up

The most attractive aspect of Google Shopping is that anyone who sells online can participate at minimal cost. Time is the greatest cost, because Google has strict rules, and is technical in ways that can feel arcane. However, with some time and focus, anyone can learn how to navigate it.

Setup involves coordinating three key Google properties: Adwords, Merchant, and Mybusiness.  Most retailers already have Adwords. From the Adwords account arises the setup of a Google Merchant account, which is the center of Google Shopping management. From this account, you load your products and manage participation in Google’s shopping programs – paid media shopping, surfaces, and local inventory. The final Google property is a Mybusiness page for each of your brick-and-mortar stores. Mybusiness knows the physical address of stores and is the basis for the local proximity-based shopping programs.

The interplay of these three elements enables shopping. The Adwords account obtains products from the Merchant data feeds, and Mybusiness provides store locations and IDs for local ad presentation and inventory confirmation. Of all of the setup elements, the costliest in terms of time and learning curve is the product data feed from your ecommerce store to Google Merchant.

Google provides five key methods to pull data but the best option for run specialty retailers is a data feed. The first option is to simply allow Google to crawl your online store and automatically pull all the key information. The second option, for advanced retailers, is the Content API, in which you connect Google directly to your store programmatically. In operation, the crawl often obtains incomplete product information, which causes products to be rejected for ads. The Content API is overkill for most Running Insight readers. Additionally, directly connecting your store to Google may reveal how product presentation in your online store can conflict with the strict technical requirements of Google. For example, you may call an item “Men’s” or “Women’s,” while the terms Google is looking for is “male,” or “female” – all lower-case is also required.

The third and fourth manners to push products to Google is to manually curate your products via connected Google Sheet or an actual upload file. While these ways can fix the compliance challenges, it is not scalable. Instead of being able to submit thousands of products, you may only be able to submit a few dozen at a time.

The last, but recommended method, is to set up a data feed. The best way to implement a data feed is to engage one of the many data feed management companies that have been established in recent years. These companies position themselves as a Rosetta Stone between your online store and Google. “Being part of Google’s massive ecosystem and utilizing Google Shopping as part of their marketing strategy, is why over 70% of our customers choose to optimize this channel,” says Rob van Nuenen, CEO of Netherlands base Channable, a leader in the feed management space. Additionally, these services are not exclusive to Google Shopping – they can be used to push information to other notable markets, e.g., Facebook & Instagram Shops, and Amazon.

Each service has its own conventions, but the gist is the same: you connect the data feed application to your online store; it vacuums up all your products (thousands, not dozens); you define rules and conditions that transforms your online store information to comply to marketplace technical requirements; and finally, you schedule a regular “fetch” from the market (e.g., Google Merchant) to obtain the feed regularly.

Besides the “male” “female” “Men’s” “Women’s” example cited above another key advantage of using a feed manager is manipulation of product fields to make them more amenable to search strategies. For example, a product title can be modified from its natural “Item Name X” to “Women’s [Brand] Item Name X, [size Y], in [Color].”  The new title includes brand, gender, and size elements that add to the searchable potency of your listing.

Pricing plans among feed services exist for any size retailer. The key drivers for cost are the number of products entering the feed manager, and the number of destinations (e.g., Google Shopping Facebook, etc.) fetching the information.

How to Start

The first step to kicking off a Google Shopping capability is to look inward and make sure your online store is well suited for searching. As Abigail Cook from Okemos, Michigan Playmakers mentions, “You need to do homework. I’d like to think Google just found us, but we spent so much time working on descriptions and meta-tagging.” Also important is to ensure that proper site tracking and tagging are set up to enable measurement and retargeting.  Then comes setting up Google Merchant and connecting Google properties between Adwords, Mybusiness and Merchant. Simultaneously, you can work on generating your product feeds. There will be at least two: A Primary Product Feed and a supplemental Local Inventory Feed.

Google provides pretty straight forward documentation, and many online resources can be used to figure out how to create these setup items on your own. However, as Playmakers’ Abigail Cook says, the main thing she wished she knew before starting her store’s journey to digital merchandising is “we did not necessarily have to do it all ourselves.” Just as costs like rent, power, and internet for a physical store are givens for retail, so too are online costs like hosting, an e-commerce store — and potentially — outside help to organize, setup, and curate a shopping program.

Retailers who have embraced digital merchandising shopping have no regrets in doing so.  Athletic Annex’ Wolford credits shopping for search impact: “Amazon is dominant, but if anyone is going to get it right, [to compete against Amazon] it’s going to be Google. You have to have a presence on Google. It’s how people search. It’s not about short-term sales, it’s about exposing your inventory to the world and increasing customer visibility to your brand.”

At Playmakers, and at Washington, D.C.-based Pacers Running, the key strategic value is in the potential to reach new customers and audiences for their products.  Playmakers’ Cook says “Using the omnichannel strategy – we can use Facebook, Google – we can find audiences we would have never found before. We ship product all over the country now.” Pacers’ Chris Farley values how the greater digital presence helps “find new runners, new potential runners, and can help start the conversation. What excites me is that it starts or continues the conversation with shoppers. We have examples of where it converts, and we have examples of just getting lots of clicks. But I’m willing to invest in marketing that gets or continues the conversation – especially with new customers.”

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