Last week, I wrote a reading rage on the topic of indie bookshops that sneer at e-readers. Some of the response that I got back was, “Yeah, they probably shouldn’t be rude to customers–but CUSTOMERS are rude! Because they showroom!” Showrooming, if you haven’t heard of it, is the act of going into a store and checking out merchandise that you want to buy, then going home and ordering it online, effectively transforming a retail establishment into a personal showroom. Up until about two days ago, I, too, was anti-showrooming. It just seemed rude as hell. After all, what kind of a jerkwad goes into a store, looks at items being offered for sale, and then shops around to get a better deal?
Oh, wait. That would be all customers, forever.
It hit me when I was chatting with @Wiswell in the comments of last week’s reading rage (which you can check out here, if you care to see the background context) that showrooming is a fancy-schmancy name for what we like to call “competition.” Barring some extreme examples, like when @deadwhiteguys recounted a customer who was actively telling other people not to buy products from that store because they’re cheaper on Amazon (who DOES that?), if a customer “showrooms” without making a purchase, it’s really not a result of rudeness. What it is, and I’m sad to say it, is the bookstore failing to make the sale.
I know, competition got a lot tougher in the digital age. Indies already had problems competing against big box bookstores, which offer discounts on new hardbacks and usually a cafe and lounging environment; with Amazon also offering lower prices, carrying just about any book you can imagine to buy, and giving customers shipping deals, closing that sale must have gotten even more difficult. Factor in smartphones and tablets, which give us all of that information without having to go back home to our computers? I’m not at all surprised that indie bookshops are feeling the pain. The thing is, we can’t blame the customers for wanting a better deal. And we can’t blame Amazon for B&N for legitimately getting into a business. (HOW DARE THEY sell books online at lower prices because they can buy in bulk and store in a warehouse where per-book overhead is lower?? Yeah, there just . . . there isn’t anything illegal or immoral about big companies selling books at lower prices.) We can’t even blame the fact that Amazon doesn’t charge sales tax; on a $25 hardcover, sales tax in my area rings up to about $1.37, and that amount of money probably isn’t going to sway me from buying a book in a store so I can wait several days to receive it in the mail. Unless I’m buying hundreds of books, sales tax just isn’t going to factor in as huge savings because they’re not huge purchases to begin with–plus, if I’m spending less than $25 on Amazon, I’m going to pay more in shipping than I save in sales tax (which I’m supposed to be paying anyway when April rolls around).
Strip away all of the usual bullshit about who is responsible for some indie bookstores tanking in the digital era, and we come down to this: if you can’t compete, you can’t stay in business. Sometimes it’s hard to compete. Sometimes you’re doing your thing, and then someone comes along and is a lot better at doing your thing than you ever imagined anybody would be–although, it’s worth noting that, according to ZDNet, only 25% of customers who compare prices online while in the store (6% of total customers) actually go on to buy that product elsewhere. This, they say, is a great thing–because the store has a chance to corral the other 75% and turn their browsing into buying.
The firm that conducted the study cited by ZDNet also had this to say about showrooming:
“But Vibes researchers say that instead of battling against showrooming, retailers should embrace it. First off, “If you offer price matching, your associates should be trained to observe ‘showrooming’ behavior and approach customers proactively with offers and information to help close the sale,” the study states.
Retailers should also understand that the presence of a smartphone in a shopper’s hands can be an aide to closing the sale. In the survey, 48% of showrooming shoppers said that they felt better about their purchase after doing some in-store research and shopping around on their phones. What smartphone-enabled shopping eliminates is the well-founded concern consumers have that soon after they make a purchase they’ll find out the item had poor reviews or was available for a much cheaper price elsewhere. With a little pre-purchase showrooming, however, these worries fade.” — “Could ‘Showrooming’ Actually Be Good for Brick-and-Mortar Retailers?”, Time
“Embrace showrooming?! Are you crazy, bookslut lady? I want ALL that shit OUT of MY STORE!”
Am I so crazy?
“Among the most ineffective — and potentially damaging — responses would be to block customers from doing online comparison shopping while in physical stores. ‘The ability to bring outside information into your store will only increase,” says Adner. “You can’t really lock the consumer in, and companies that try to do that will fail.’ Alison Jatlow Levy, a retail consultant at New York City-based management consulting firm Kurt Salmon, agrees. ‘The last thing you can ever do is upset a customer,’ Jatlow Levy notes. ‘Anything that alienates the customer will do so much damage.’” — Knowledge@Wharton, UPenn
Frowning upon showrooming–or chasing away customers who are showrooming–is a disastrous response. I have every right to select my retailer; I don’t owe anybody anything just by virtue of walking into a store to see what they have for sale and at what price. Here’s another thing that’s not crazy: like I said last week, if I’m in your store, I’m already at least halfway to making a purchase. Online retailers don’t always have an advantage, because there’s a powerful lure in instant gratification. If I’m holding the thing I want already in my hand, and the price difference isn’t terribly significant (hardbacks, it will be; paperbacks, not so much, unless I opt to buy used), I’m already going to be leaning toward buying it right then, right there. Mix in some value-added services and a well-trained sales staff? I’m walking out of that store with the book, more likely than not.
And if I don’t buy the book from your store? It’s not my fault, yo. If bricks-and-mortar retail wants to re-establish competition where it might be lagging, the first step is to stop blaming the customer. We hate that and we won’t forgive it very easily.
What about you, book fans? Am I crazy? Do you whip out your phone in a store to check prices? Have you ever been given a dirty look–or worse!–for doing so? Tell me your thoughts in the comments!