Google's answer to Amazon Prime launches in Maryland

Google's answer to Amazon Prime launches in Maryland.

Aiming to muscle into e-commerce giant Amazon's turf, Google is expanding its online shopping and delivery platform into Maryland and much of the East Coast.

The expansion is part of a push to make Google Express available nationwide by the end of the year. The service, which launched in select cities in 2013, expanded to 16 states earlier this year and on Wednesday added 13 more.

"Our mission, broadly, is to connect customers with merchants they love and vice versa," said Brian Elliott, general manager of Google Express.

The move comes as Amazon Prime, with its members-only benefits and same-day delivery, gains popularity and draws away shoppers — and advertisers — from Google, analysts said.

"They're trying to protect their ad base, of course, because they're getting crushed by Amazon," said Howard Davidowitz, a retail analyst and founder of Davidowitz & Associates Inc. in New York City.

Google's search engine used to be the first stop for people surfing the web for a good deal. But as Amazon Prime solidifies the online retailer's reputation for can't-beat offers, more shoppers are turning directly to Amazon to search for products, he said.

With Google Express, Google aims to win back shoppers, though the task won't be easy.

"At the end of the day Amazon has many more products to choose from, a much broader selection and they give more perks," Davidowitz said. "I'm not saying people won't use it — of course they will — but I don't think this is going to be a threat to Amazon at all."

Google Express works with a limited number of retailers — 14 in Maryland and the other states where service expanded Wednesday. Those retailers include Costco, Kohl's, PetSmart and Whole Foods Market.

The company plans to add more retailers in the coming months, Elliott said.

Similarly to Amazon Prime, Google Express is accessed through a membership — either $10 a month or $95 a year. Members pay nothing more for delivery on orders of at least $15, while smaller orders incur an extra charge.

Non-members can shop through a "pay-as-you-go" option that starts at $4.99 per order.

The service will be available statewide. Google Express contracts with delivery companies to pick up items from the retailer and deliver them to customers within two days. Same-day service and overnight delivery are possible depending on a retailer's proximity to the delivery address. During the checkout process, shoppers will see which delivery options are available for their specific order and choose.

While AmazonFresh will deliver fresh food to your doorstep in some cities, including Baltimore, Google Express is sticking with non-perishable food items.

Elliott said Google Express isn't trying to be Amazon. Rather, its approach is to connect shoppers with brands instead of specific products.

"We don't think of it as being in competition with anybody," Elliott said. "We think of it as how do we do what we're good at."

The service's strength is its technology platform, which is intended to appeal to both shoppers and retailers, Elliott said.

Google Express deliberately partnered with retailers with loyal customers. Some, such as Costco, have their own membership programs.

The service could be an asset to these companies, by helping them attract new customers and increase sales among existing ones, Elliott said.

Google Express may never eclipse Amazon as the go-to place for online shopping, but likely will be popular among retailers regardless, said Dan Kogan, CEO of 1Digital Agency, a Philadelphia consultant for online retailers.

"A lot of people don't want to put all their eggs in one basket and are looking for other ways to sell," Kogan said.

Merchants pay Amazon hefty referral fees on every product sold through the website — between 6 percent and 20 percent of the sale price for most items, according to Amazon's website.

What's more, when a particular product starts selling well, Amazon often starts competing with retailers, selling the product itself, Kogan said.

Google Express could help retailers diversify their online sales portfolio and reduce their reliance on Amazon, he said.

sarah.gantz@baltsun.com

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