SAN FRANCISCO - When Google started testing a free same-day shopping delivery service in San Francisco last year, industry observers were surprised by the company's foray into a notoriously tricky and decidedly low-margin real-world business.
Others raised their eyebrows when orders of one or two items, such as toothpaste or a can of soda, sometimes arrived in a bag big enough to hold a week's worth of groceries.
It was a rookie mistake, one that underscores how Google is wading into unfamiliar territory - a business, now contested by seasoned hands Amazon.com Inc and eBay Inc. that claimed many victims during the first dotcom boom.
For Google, which dominates the wildly profitable Web search advertising business, dispatching drivers and delivering packages seems like an expensive diversion with an uncertain payoff. One of the biggest disasters of last decade's dotcom crash, Webvan, bled hundreds of millions of dollars on just such a business until it failed.
Online shopping is an area that Google, which has ambitions to dominate every aspect of the Web, has traditionally had a limited presence in. Traffic lost to Amazon and eBay, which are using same-day service to lock in consumers for the main business, means customers lost for Google's other services.
As e-commerce grows, Google wants at least to get its hands on data about online shoppers, so it can expand and improve its main business, search advertising. Its successful foray into mobile phone software was driven partly by a similar philosophy to guard its search franchise. Now its Android system ensures Google search is on most smartphones globally.
After more than a year of testing, and hiccups such as on packaging, Google is preparing to expand its delivery service.
Unfazed by the ghosts of defunct home-delivery operations Webvan or Kozmo.com, Google is ramping up its Shopping Express with radio ads touting the service in the San Francisco Bay Area. It recently took its blue-and-white Priuses and vans to Los Angeles in a limited trial and is considering moving into New York, according to a person familiar with the matter.
"Same-day delivery doesn't have to be a luxury. It's a convenience that everyone should be able to enjoy, and that means across lots of stores, across lots of cities and across lots of products," said Tom Fallows, director of product management for Google Shopping Express. Fallows wouldn't say when Google delivery cars might come to New York, but he confirmed that the company plans to enter more cities.
"We are eagerly starting to move forward on some of our next steps for expansion," he said. He declined to discuss the economics for Google.
Google is also experimenting with ways to deliver perishable groceries such as milk and eggs - items that require special temperature-controlled storage and delivery gear, and which are already available through Amazon's rival Fresh service - though Fallows said it's too early to say whether that might ultimately become part of the service.
Google has "tens of thousands" of users of the service in the San Francisco Bay Area placing thousands of orders a day, according to the person with knowledge of its delivery business.
"This is a play that will take many years before it turns in any way profitable. But it's something worth doing if they can establish the marketplace and the other hooks into the business," the person said.