Google Inc. will offer printable discount coupons to local shoppers, in a promotional bid that aims to drive U.S. online shoppers using its Google Maps service to visit stores, the company said on Monday.
The world's top Web search supplier is taking advantage of the marketing tool, which is traditionally used by small businesses, to entice U.S. consumers to seek out savings from local retailers such as dry cleaners, pizza delivery restaurants and auto repair shops.
Google has partnered with Valpak, the top U.S. supplier of coupon advertising, to provide more than 20,000 coupons from current Valpak advertisers when consumers search for relevant stores using its Google Maps map and local directory service.
Valpak is a unit of privately held Cox Enterprises.
Google also plans to encourage businesses to create their own discount coupons using a simple Web-based template, giving small businesses - even ones that don't have their own Web sites - an easy way to attract hard-to-reach online shoppers.
One of the challenges small businesses face today is the lack of an ability to contend with online users, said Shailesh Rao, Google's director of local search. We know it's a practical fact ... Small businesses rely on coupons, he said.
When Google users search for local information, discount coupons from U.S. businesses now are displayed on Google Maps (http://www.maps.google.com) search results and business listing pages. The company may expand the program to other markets in Europe and Asia in coming months, Rao said.
The coupons can be printed out directly from a computer and redeemed at a physical store location of a neighborhood or local business. There is no charge to businesses or consumers.
This answers the general problem that exists in the online world of demonstrating the value of how much real-world traffic online marketing actually drives into stores, said Greg Sterling, an analyst with Sterling Market Intelligence in Oakland, California who specializes in local Web search.
In seeking to bridge the online and offline shopping worlds, Google's discount-coupon push marks another competitive challenge for newspaper publishers, which have typically relied upon inserted advertising coupons as a source of revenue.
It also poses a challenge for established direct marketers which distribute coupons. Direct online rivals to Valpak include CoolSavings.com, a unit of privately held newspaper publishing and broadcast company Landmark Communications Inc.
America is the country in which price is king, said Kurt Barnard, president of consulting firm Retail Forecasting Group. Every marketing ploy that drives a customer into a store is critical.
Later this year, advertisers using Google AdWords -- the company's advertising network that operates across affiliated Web sites - will be able to add coupons directly to their advertisements as a new tool to woo buyers, Google said.
Google discount coupons must be printed out and presented to retailers. There are no current plans to offer the discount program to mobile phone users, who, in theory, can simply download the coupons on Web-equipped mobile phones and present the electronic screen to a store clerk. Valpak said few retailers have a secure way to manage electronic coupons.
Businesses can upload a small image to appear on the face of the coupon and create a unique identifying number in order to track coupon offers and defend against potential fraud.
Valpak targets 500 million blue envelopes through the mails to 45 million households in the United States and Canada each year. It offers coupons from 75,000 businesses a year.