EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s guest blogger is Eric Rosenzweig, CIO of Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp. Eric and the Garden Fresh team told their story live via webinar recently. Listen to the webinar recording to hear them discuss why the time was right to switch and how the change benefited their business.

With 129 restaurants in 15 states, Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp. has grown quickly since we acquired the first two Souplantation restaurants in 1983. Since then, over 300 million guests have experienced the all-you-care-to-eat dining experience at our restaurants, jam packed with fresh, high quality ingredients.

Early in 2012, we found that the upkeep of our email system & servers was becoming unsustainable. It slowed down collaboration and execution of plans across the business. After evaluating various solutions, switching to Google Apps with the help of SADA Systems was a ‘no brainer’.

Introducing shared Google Calendars and Google Docs simplified day-to-day tasks. Before the move to Google Apps, branch auditing, a quality control process, was a particular pain point for us. Auditors would share branch videos with 18 general and district managers via email. Managers often missed key details in the ensuing email correspondence and ended up with many duplicate copies of important documents. Now, the videos are added to a shared Google spreadsheet, on which each branch has its own tab. Analysis & actions items are captured on one live, master document, erasing information duplication and ensuring that important insights are not missed. The new auditing process requires 80% less time on this team’s part to effectively manage.

Our marketing team has also seen the benefits of real-time collaboration. The process to launch new marketing endeavors, such as coupon schemes across multiple locations, has been streamlined. In the past, problems with in-store coupons were surfaced via phone or email, on or after the launch date. Now, prior to a campaign launch, each restaurant receives a Google Form containing test codes. They use the form to report whether the codes are scanning correctly. If they aren’t, they can open the response spreadsheet to see who’s fixing the issue and when it’s expected to be fixed. This allows for speedy troubleshooting that leads to a much better customer experience.

For me, the most important thing about these examples is the lack of IT involvement. The switch to the cloud has empowered Garden Fresh employees to share information & collaborate in ways that suit them, placing very little strain on IT resources. My team now has the time to focus on projects that will move the business forward as a whole, which is exactly as it should be.

Can you believe Thanksgiving is once again upon us? While it is a great weekend to reflect on all that we have to be thankful for and to catch up with friends and family, Thanksgiving weekend has also has become the official kickoff for the holiday shopping season.

Although previously just a single-day shopping extravaganza, Thanksgiving weekend has exploded into a packed 5-day shopping bonanza filled with special discounts and deals. With online sales up over by over 25% in 2011 (comScore), 2012 promises to bring an even better weekend for Retailers. So, before you head out to shop yourself this weekend, here are some must-know tips & tricks to ensure you’re set-up for success:

Thanksgiving-Day Shopping is bigger than ever before:
Thanksgiving Day shopping trends have dramatically shifted the past couple of years. Previously, a ‘turkey-coma’ was spent resting, or napping, in anticipation of store openings at midnight on Friday morning. However, more recently, with the surging popularity of tablets and mobile phones, ‘turkey-come’ behavior has shifted from resting to ‘couch commerce.’

2011 saw a surge in online sales on Thanksgiving Day. Although spending the day with friends and family, consumers shopped online before, during, and after their big Thanksgiving meal, as online sales increased by 39% over 2010. Of those Turkey Day shoppers, 15% of consumers used mobile devices to browse in-store merchandise or to shop that evening, up 136% from 2010 (IBM & TechCrunch). This Thanksgiving Day, to take advantage of ‘couch commerce,’ be sure to create, and promote, specific Thanksgiving Day deals or to call-out your best in-store deals for the weekend. People are shopping on Thanksgiving Day and, as a Retailer, it deserves your attention.

Mobile, Mobile, Mobile
Whether sitting on their couch on Thanksgiving Day, or price comparison shopping in stores on Black Friday, mobile ecommerce is becoming a more integral component of Black Friday and Cyber Monday weekend. Last holiday season 1 in 4 consumers used more than one device to shop, with shopping from Mobile devices peaking at 20% in the last two hours of Cyber Monday. (Akamai). No matter your business, Black Friday weekend lends an excellent opportunity to bring mobile users to you. With users on the go and on their mobile devices, create ads that drive customers to your store’s address or that call-out your special Black Friday promotions and sales.

Promote your deals:
Last year almost 123 Million Americans shopped online on Cyber Monday (BIGinsight/ NRF). With so many consumers shopping over the long weekend, it’s no surprise that ‘Black Friday Deals’ queries are already nearly up by 24% over 2011. Consumers have come to expect Black Friday and Cyber Monday discounts, and have already begun to search for them. As a Retailer its imperative that you highlight your Black Friday & Cyber Monday promotions in your messaging. Before the weekend, make sure your ad copy incorporates your specific Black Friday and Cyber Monday promotions and deals. With a crowded marketplace, this is an opportunity for you to connect with the user and differentiate from the competition.

Reconnect with your established visitors:
Over the past year, you may have gathered Remarketing lists of users who previously visited your site or purchased online. This 5-day shopping weekend is a great time to use those lists to re-engage with those consumers. Take this opportunity to show them your newly released product, specific in-store promotion, or special Cyber Monday deal. Research has shown that 70% of Holiday shoppers are not tied to a specific brand and that 61% do not have a specific brand in-mind to purchase. Use Thanksgiving weekend as an opportunity to buck that trend by leveraging your existing user base. Sometimes previous visitors just need a little nudge to remember you.

Hope everyone has a happy, healthy, and shopping-filled Thanksgiving weekend!

Posted by Stephen Woldenberg, The Google Retail Team

While retailers might still be carting out decorations and Black Friday deals have yet to hit shelves, the holiday shopping season is already in full swing. Searches for “holiday gift” on Google have already spiked 156% since the first of November, and searches for “Black Friday” are up 546%.

In the days leading up to the biggest shopping event of the year, we took a look at early trends in holiday shopping using Google Consumer Surveys and found that it’s shaping up to be the first Nonline holiday season. People are shopping earlier and shopping smarter, both online and in stores. Case in point, while 80% of shoppers plan to research their purchases online, 69% of apparel shoppers still plan to make their purchases in a store while 36% plan to purchase online.

Shopping earlier, shopping smarter
Although we’re only halfway into November, many consumers have already purchased their holiday gifts - 14% of people who plan to shop for toys have already made purchases, 11% for apparel shoppers, and 6% for electronics shoppers. Most plan on completing their shopping primarily in December, but Thanksgiving weekend shopping remains strong. We found that 28% of people who plan to shop for electronics plan to make their purchases primarily during Thanksgiving weekend, 18% for toy shoppers, and 17% for apparel shoppers.

In addition to shopping earlier, people are using smartphones to be smarter about the purchases they make. We found that 80% of shoppers use their smartphone or tablet to shop before buying online or in a store. If you’re a retailer, most people that walk through your doors will already have an idea of what they’re looking for in mind.

Smart marketers are helping customers pre-shop items online before getting to the store. Macy’s is using search ads to drive people to their Black Friday sale preview whether they’re on a laptop or mobile device. Holiday card searches jump after Thanksgiving, and new ad formats are allowing Storkie Express to raise awareness of their Hidden Dimension app, a new tool that animates their paper holiday cards. Running the mobile app extension on search ads has boosted downloads for their app across screens.

Discounts and free shipping seal the deal
Consumers still see shipping costs as a barrier, and for some it can be a deal breaker. If the a site doesn’t offer free shipping:
  • 48% will look for it on another site with free shipping
  • 32% will visit a nearby store to buy the product
  • 20% will still purchase the item from the site
Most shoppers felt that they are seeing the same amount of holiday discounts and coupons as they did last year (70%). However 22% of shoppers feel that they’re seeing fewer deals for holiday sales and promotions - which opens the opportunity for retailers to reach consumers with special offers as they’re actively hunting for deals this week. This is particularly impactful for toy retailers, as 40% of shoppers always compare prices on toys before making a decision.

Shoppers go online to beat crowds
As more people cross-shop online and in stores this season, many view online shopping as an easier way to shop. Consumers described holiday shopping online as easy, great, and convenient, while they described holiday shopping in stores as crazy, hectic, stressful, and exciting.

However, having an easy-to-use mobile website is essential to keeping shoppers on your site. More than 46% feel frustrated when mobile sites are hard to navigate. And as we’ve seen from past research, mobile shoppers will quickly move on to another site if they didn’t find what they were looking for right away.

You can find these stats and more by viewing the full report on Google Consumer Surveys. Find more of our holiday shopping research here.

Posted by Jon Sadow, on behalf of the Google Consumer Surveys team

The holiday season is a chaotic time, with shopping activity reaching a fever pitch. Holiday shoppers aren’t just looking for the best deals, they’re also looking for the retailer that provides the most hassle-free path to purchase. Read on for 8 tips you can apply now to earn the business of this year’s throng of savvy gift givers, wherever and however they are on the web.

Be where the shoppers are.
53% of consumers plan to do more holiday shopping research online this year than they did in 2011. It’s essential at this point in the season to double-check that your search and display ads stand out from the rest.

1. Make basic changes for big impact in your search ads.
Using a longer ad headline may result in higher clickthrough rates, and also creates a better experience for users by highlighting more information in the ad. We also recommend helping shoppers see the exact products you offer before they even reach your site with product ads.

2. Convert browsers to buyers with remarketing.
Now that you’ve gotten shoppers to check out your site, use remarketing to keep engaging them. Win back that potential customer who placed their favorite fruit cake in their shopping cart, but did not complete the checkout process. You can show that fruit cake -- now with free shipping! -- to that shopper as they browse other websites.

3. Reach people even when they’re not searching.
Gift givers consult myriad sources online looking for all the help they can get, from blogs to product review sites to the most niche sites you can imagine. Take advantage of every opportunity to tell them that you’ve got exactly what they’re looking for. At minimum, we recommend running a campaign on the Google Display Network, which lets you place ads on millions of sites across the Internet. Consider tools like interest categories and demographics to effectively reach people who are interested in what you have to sell -- even if they don’t already know you exist.

Be useful and engaging.
Once you’ve earned a shopper’s consideration, don’t squander it. Don’t just be informative -- bend over backwards to make it as easy as possible for someone to buy from you.

4. Help people quickly find, visit, and call your business.
Start with your search campaign. Use location extensions to dynamically attach your business address and phone number to your search ads and location targeting to show ads to customers in a specific geographic area. Then, build a mobile site or app that, at minimum, helps shoppers easily find the nearest store, a “click-to-call” phone number, and your holiday hours. Stay ahead of the pack by including which stores are carrying specific products, and how to buy online if it’s not available nearby.

5. Keep your ads fresh.
There are few things that will turn a potential holiday customer away more than clicking on a display ad on a website they trust -- only to find that your advertised product is out of stock. Consider using Keyword Contextual Targeting, which lets you tailor your display ads based on inventory levels. For example, if you're out of a specific product, you can pause a keyword and turn it on when it’s back in stock.

6. Bring your print catalog to the tablet.
The print catalog has been an invaluable shopping tool for years. Bring yours to the next level by creating an interactive, tablet version of your catalog. Shoppers can tap to view products, create a collage, share ideas with friends, or visit your site to make a purchase. And with the new lightbox ad format, you can bring your online catalog to new users, who can then browse and buy right from within the ad. The best part is that you only pay when shoppers engage with the ad.

Be the winner.
Oftentimes, one ad or even five isn’t enough to convince someone to buy from you. Strive to close the deal at multiple points in every customer’s personal journey towards a purchase, both online and offline.

7. Appeal to bargain hunters.
Turn perpetual comparison shoppers to buyers by offering discounts, gift cards and coupons on smartphones and tablets. And make it easy for them to redeem these offers at your store.

8. Make the sale with in-store shoppers.
Make it easy for people to use your mobile site or app as a companion during their shopping trip. For example, you can offer QR codes that enable shoppers to scan out-of-stock products and purchase them from your site. Shoppers also love to use your mobile site or app to make shopping lists, view expanded product details, watch product videos or compare customer ratings.

We hope you found these tips helpful. Happy holidays -- and happy optimizing!

Posted by Erica Sievert, Product Marketing Manager, Google Display Network

* Holiday Consumer Intentions 2012

(cross-posted on the Inside AdWords Blog and Mobile Ads Blog)

This holiday season, make it easy for your customers to find, visit, and call your business with AdWords location targeting and location extensions. Location targeting shows your ads to customers in specific geographic areas you want to reach, while location extensions dynamically attach your business address and phone number to your ads. Today, we are announcing a few improvements to these two features and making them available in more countries to help your business “get local” for the holidays.

What’s new:

1. Introducing airport targeting: A new way to reach travelers on the go
Whether people are checking a flight status or passing time before take-off, mobile and tablet devices have become indispensable for airport-goers. With the launch of airport targeting, businesses are now able to connect with potential customers on mobile, tablet or laptop devices in more than 350 airports around the world via AdWords.

With airport targeting, you can offer relevant, last-minute travel and entertainment opportunities, promote your mobile application to airport travelers, amplify interest in your in-airport campaigns, build your brands with mobile display ads, and much more. Plus, you can easily review the performance of these campaigns using geographic performance reports.

2. Location extensions and sitelinks show together
Location extensions can now be shown alongside one-line sitelinks in text ads (on desktop and laptop computers) and will continue to show with two-line and three-line sitelinks. If you have a multi-channel business, consider using location extensions in addition to sitelinks to help you highlight specific areas of your business.

3. Larger, more useful maps
Location extensions on desktop and laptop computers will now appear with a larger, more engaging map panel that will replace the current expandable map. When the location extension address is clicked, this new map panel appears to the right of the top search results.

Early testing suggests that users will click to see locations on a map more frequently than with our previous design.

4. Better location matching for customers
Features such as postal code targeting in the U.S., have enabled us to show closer and more relevant locations to your customers from within your location extensions. At the same time, if you have a specialty or destination business such as a niche boutique or a ski resort, your location extensions can be shown to people who are located nearby, but who aren’t within your business’s postal code -- so you also can attract customers who are willing to travel longer distances to visit your business.

5. Online conversion reporting for Location Extensions
If you use AdWords conversion tracking, you probably want to know how location extensions affect your online conversion rates. Earlier this year, we included online conversion data within ad extensions reports to help you analyze the overall impact of location extensions on online conversions and measure your online conversions per location more effectively.

6. Geo-targeting and location extensions available in more countries
In addition to previously announced updates to location extensions and geo-targeting options in more countries, we’re excited to make location extensions available in Argentina, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, UAE, and Vietnam.

We have also expanded geo-targeting options in the following countries: counties in the United Kingdom, departments in France, and cities in Argentina, Russia, and United Arab Emirates.

Here’s a full list of location targets available globally.

Get local

We hope these improvements will make it easier for you to highlight your local business information for customers, both during and after this busy holiday season. If you’re new to local ads, or would just like to learn more, check out our help center for step-by-step instructions on setting up location extensions and location targeting. And, you can always contact AdWords support.

Posted by Smita Hashim, Group Product Manager

You’ve heard a lot from us about emerging nonline trends this year - and that trend continued this past Halloween season, where trick-or-treaters no longer recognized a divide between online and offline shopping.

Neither did smart businesses.

For years, costume sites made convenience and inventory the hallmarks of their success. This year, with increasing consumer demand around Halloween and more multi-good retailers getting into the game, those businesses needed to rethink ways to capture the interest of savvy shoppers.

This year we saw costumes retailers invest more than ever in mobile websites, video content, and improved product pages to engage with shoppers wherever they were searching, whether from the candy aisle or a haunted house. By ensuring they were present across all screens, these retailers were able to capitalize quickly on offline events, most predominantly those of the elections frenzy.

Practically overnight, Big Bird made the jump from Presidential debate quote to a digital supertrend, even for trick-or-treaters. Google searches for “Big Bird costumes” exploded online, with searches spiking more than 700% following the debate. Retailers like mobilized quickly on search and shopping to catch the eye of interested consumers, selling out of their Big Bird costume inventory in just three days. We saw similar spikes for “binders full of women” costume searches, which even outpaced searches for Mitt Romney masks. CafeMoms, one of YouTube's original channels, offered a how-to tutorial on how to make a "Binder Full of Women" costume from scratch, which racked up over 35,000 views.

Beyond binders, trendy trick-or-treaters got crafty with homemade costumes, with a little help from YouTube. DIY makeup tips for sugar Skulls and zombie mouths lead to some frightening original looks. And many trick-or-treaters took inspiration from YouTube for their costumes, looking beyond popular TV and film-based character options to YouTube stars for ideas. Retailers could market a whole new set of products and won an uptick in costume sales for YouTube stars like Gangam Style's Psy, The Annoying Orange, and The Guild.

Each costume search--whether Romney, Obama, Psy, or Big Bird--signified an opportunity for nimble retailers to connect with interested shoppers, wherever they were looking for costumes. Retailers who acted quickly and engaged with shoppers through tools like tailored search ads, how-to videos, and special offers won that zero moment of truth.

As we move into the holiday gift-giving season, retailers will continue to establish connections online that could only previously happen offline. And while we’re waiting to see what breakout toy trends emerge this year, you can bet costume retailers will be ready to go with the Santa suits.

Posted by April Anderson, Retail Industry Director for the Google Retail Team