Mobile devices seem to be everywhere now and people are using their smartphones, tablets and hybrids to do far more than check email or browse the web while waiting for that double espresso to make its way to the table.

The Strategic Marketing Division of the Orlando Sentinel reports that “showrooming” – where shoppers browse for items at a local store and then buy those same items online – hit specialty stores like Best Buy especially hard this past holiday season. The electronics retailer estimates that as much as 40% of its foot traffic wandered through the front doors without ever planning to make an actual physical purchase. An increasing number of shoppers – including as many as 90% of smartphone owners — are believed to have relied on their mobile devices to compare prices on the spot with online retailers. And then either bargain with the store to match the price, or simply buy the item online and pocket the savings.

Does Amazon offer drive-through returns?

Mega-retailers like Target, Wal-Mart, Sears and even Nordstrom’s have taken several different approaches to fighting the effects of showrooming, including various combinations of the following:

  • Offering instant gratification via in-store pickup
  • Adding drive-through returns, popular with shoppers with young children
  • Synchronizing inventory so that items unavailable online can be shipped directly from stores
  • Guaranteeing to match prices

In the case of Best Buy, though, those efforts only go so far. Because the retailer’s business is focused mostly on electronics and related accessories, any number of smaller online retailers, not to mention number one nemesis Amazon, can siphon off business by advertising one-hour or one-day specials that Best Buy simply isn’t willing, or able, to match. The chain store recently announced its Price Match Guarantee, but that’s limited to a select number of online retailers, and the policy doesn’t apply during typical shopping frenzies such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Still, retailers that carry a wide variety of products are finding that their efforts to beat back the online beasts are starting to pay off. Or at least slow the bleeding of lost sales. When products are just as cheap to buy in person as they are online, and shipping costs are taken into consideration, shoppers seem willing to pay for the merchandise in store and be done with at least one more item on their gift list. Brick-and-mortar stores also offer a cash payment option, which appeals to those without credit cards as well as to skeptics unwilling to transmit credit card data over an Internet connection.

If you can’t beat them, join them. And then beat them.

For their part, some online retailers, like Ebay, have already launched counterattacks in the form of brick-and-mortar stores that match retailers in the areas of price and service. And smaller retailers, such as specialty clothing outlets, are finding that, as much as customers want those cheap online bargains, they’re unwilling to click “Add to Cart” without handling the merchandise for fit and feel. A few of those merchants have become true showrooms – displaying merchandise and offering it for a try-on, but shipping the customer’s actual purchase from their online warehouse.

While retailers and online merchants continue to jockey for prime position, the fact remains that some customers – like mothers and daughters on a shopping extravaganza — still just enjoy the experience of going to a real live store and taking in the sights and sounds. Sometimes leaving with a purchase, and sometimes not. And the stores are happy to have them do either. Because one positive shopping experience leads to another. And everyone knows where the negative ones lead.

No smartphone app worth its harvest of clicks will put an end to that time-honored tradition anytime soon. Not if the retailers behind it, local or online, know what’s good for them.

Print Friendly