The Google Assistant/Duplex may soon be calling local businesses to check for inventory availability. This notification appears on a support page mostly about appointment booking through Duplex: “Google Assistant will only call you when a customer wants to book an appointment or when it needs to check your business hours or the status of in-demand inventory.” It was first noticed by Android Police.
Current usage of Duplex unclear. Google said in March it would be using the technology behind Duplex (Google Assistant) to call local businesses and update or confirm hours and perhaps other factual information. It’s unclear how widespread or effective this has been; Google hasn’t done much to educate SMBs (that I’m aware of) about this capability or why businesses would want to use it.
It’s also not clear how successful Duplex might be in getting through to a small business retailer, many of whom don’t pick up the phone. (Larger retailers have IVR systems that would block Duplex.) Google’s CallJoy virtual agent is designed to compensate for phone-phobic SMBs, using the same underlying technology that powers Duplex to help them capture more phone leads. (Imagine a future scenario where Google’s Duplex is calling an SMB subscribed to Google’s CallJoy.)
But it’s the product availability use case is what’s really interesting here.
Demand for product inventory availability. Google said recently in a blog post, “Searches for ‘in-stock’ grew more than 70 percent globally from the week of March 28 to April 4, as consumers sought to avoid ecommerce shipping delays.” In multiple ways, Google has been increasingly emphasizing real-time inventory availability, including promoting curbside pickup and “pick up today” availability in Shopping Ads.
Beyond not wanting to wait for e-commerce shipping, shoppers don’t want to take a chance on going into a store only to find the desired item isn’t there. Previously, if you made an assumption about product availability and were disappointed in a store it wasn’t a big deal — just go on to the next store. But now, with the danger of being infected actually growing, not waning, in many places, consumers must minimize false starts and wasted visits.
Thus we’ll see more and more “buy online, pick up locally” behavior from consumers who just want to “get in and get out.” Real-time product availability thus becomes a highly desirable datapoint for consumers and a strategic differentiator (vs. Amazon) for local product sellers and retailers.
For SMBs, communicating product inventory availability online has been a long-standing issue that many startups tried and failed to solve, arguably save one: Pointy, which Google acquired in January. However, the company hasn’t yet fully deployed or tapped into Pointy’s capabilities.
Why we care. Duplex is an intriguing technology that has the potential, over time, to take on a wide range of quasi-marketing or sales functions for Google and maybe even third parties (if licensed). We’re probably some years away from that. But in the near term, Duplex could help Google solve the problem of inaccurate listings and SMBs solve the problem of updating their GMB information, which many are not doing themselves.
The product-inquiry function, if it works, could also help generate additional sales for local retailers when their success, if not survival, may depend on making product inventory known online.