What exactly is Google doing with BufferBox?
On Friday we found out that Google had acquired one of its own Google Ventures investments; however the acquisition price for the Ontario-Canada based startup wasn’t disclosed. It couldn’t have been that much given that the company was at a relatively early stage and only operating in the Toronto area.
BufferBox is essentially a competitor to Amazon Lockers, although the company claims that it had the idea before Amazon. That idea is to allow e-commerce buyers to ship to the larger equivalent of a PO box in various locations throughout a city (often convenience or drug stores). It a way it’s like a RedBox for packages.
In the articles written after the acquisition was announced many people argued that Google is “going after” Amazon. Yes, perhaps.
However I think BufferBox is something of a experiment for Google and more broadly tied into the notion of connecting the online and offline worlds — something it’s trying to do in several ways.
Is it an “acqu-hire” or a product acquisition? It’s a bit of both, according to quotes published in a Financial Post article attributed to Google engineering director Steve Woods. Woods is based in Waterloo Ontario where the BufferBox team will be moving.
Woods says the following about the acquisition:
We’re not going to go into great detail about our future plans, but we think there’s a real exciting space beyond this amazing start with boxes, and the idea of touching consumers as part of their end-to-end experience is something we’re going to explore together. I don’t think we would say even definitively what it’s going to be, but we’re going to do some great things together.
The key line above is: “touching consumers as part of their end-to-end experience.” This suggests a larger vision for BufferBox than simply “PO box 2.0.”
Google is trying to “touch” consumers and merchants in numerous ways: offers, ads, payments, mobile, search, online services and on and on. BufferBox is one more way to establish and reinforce a relationship with consumers. And it provides another real-world point of presence and touch point between Google and its audience.
But will BufferBox boost Google Shopping vs. Amazon? Not really. Not unless there’s some additional benefit or incentive tied to its use. That said, maybe it’s “defensive” for Google and simply seeking to match Amazon’s capabilities. Yet Google doesn’t really think or act purely defensively; the company usually has a broader vision in mind.
Without knowing the broader BufferBox product roadmap, I have serious doubt that this will turn into a major initiative for Google. As I said above — until proven otherwise — I believe this is really a provocative experiment at this stage. There have been many startups in the past that have unsuccessfully tried to close the gap between e-commerce and offline shopping, including same-day delivery services.
Most of those have not justified themselves sufficiently to consumers to survive. They’ve often been redundant of existing services or simply been unable to cost-effectively scale. However if we see BufferBox as part of the larger world of interactive or e-commerce kiosks it’s also interesting viewed through that lens.
Earlier this year, when I expressed skepticism about the outlook for Amazon Lockers on my blog, I received a number of comments and responses that indicated they would be very useful in several specific situations. People who live in multi-unit apartments or who aren’t home during the day (or during vacations) can benefit from this type of service. There are probably other use cases in developing markets as well.
I’ll wait and see. But my instinct is to bet against this one turning into anything big for Google — provocative as it is.
Image credit: Google