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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

May 4, 2013 at 8:00 PM

Smart shopping or petty theft? Caught in the act of ‘showrooming’

Stores, online retailers and showrooming: The 'art of power' indeed.

Stores, online retailers and showrooming: The ‘art of power’ indeed.

Most days I go to Third Place Books in Ravenna, I walk right past the merchandise and sit down to work at the Vios Cafe in the back.

But one day last month, I had a minute to look around.

Sitting on the corner of the new hardcover section was a book about Thomas Jefferson that looked awesome. “The Art of Power,” it was called.

What I did next was pure instinct. I took out my phone and snapped a picture of its cover, intending to put it in my Evernote as a reminder to buy it later on Amazon.com.

Instantly, I felt awful.

I checked the price on the book. $35. No way it’s that expensive online, I thought. I wanted to keep moving. Had any employees seen me snap the pic?

The week before, I’d walked through Elliott Bay Book Company on Capitol Hill while waiting for my husband to meet me for lunch. “I miss not seeing bookstores as beautiful endangered species,” I’d posted then on Facebook.

Ah shoot, I thought. I have to buy the book while at Third Place Books, don’t I?

It was a classic case of showroomer’s dilemma. “Showrooming,” if you haven’t heard the term, is the act of treating physical stores as showrooms for products you later buy online.

It’s price-conscious shopping. But is it also, morally, petty theft?

The growing habit is every retailer’s nightmare, and stores are fighting back. Target kicked off year-round price matching of online retailers in January. Wal-Mart and Nordstrom are testing same-day delivery to keep up.

But what about the little guys? In a 2013 survey by the national nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance, in partnership with the American Booksellers Association and other independent business groups, more than 80 percent of independent stores said showrooming was affecting their business, with 47 percent calling the impact “moderate” or “significant.”

There’s really only one reason why showrooming is such a threat: It’s great for the consumer. Twenty percent of products change price daily, according to Seattle-based online deal finder Decide.com. And there’s little shoppers care about more than price. When consumers consult their smartphones before making a purchase, Decide found, 70 percent do it to check the price.

It makes sense. If we comparison shop airline tickets, why not everything else — online and off?

Some methods are harsher than others. During the 2011 holiday shopping season, Amazon launched a jaw-dropping promotion for its Price Check app: Report the price of an item at a store and get $5 off your purchase of that same item on Amazon.

Paul Constant, book writer for The Stranger, called anyone who used the app a name my editor won’t let me repeat.

Last week I was back at Third Place Books, working on my laptop over a bowl of chicken soup. I hadn’t bought “The Art of Power” yet, here or anywhere, and pulled up the listing on Amazon. It cost $20.74 in hardcover, $17.99 on the Kindle.

Wow, I thought. Bookstores really are toast.

I closed the laptop, marched to the bookstore counter and confessed my showrooming near-sin to cashier Patti Harriman.

She was all too familiar.

“We do see people taking pictures,” she said. “It makes you feel kind of used.”

Fellow Third Place Books employee Mark Bonney said he overheard a woman tell her friend that she comes here to browse and write the names of good books she’ll buy online later.

“A lot of people say, ‘Can I borrow a scrap of paper?’ And you just don’t know,” he said.

Awareness makes a difference. Bonney once took a call from a man asking if he had a book in stock. When his wife said it was cheaper on Amazon, Bonney told the man that choosing Amazon over bookstores makes it less likely bookstores will survive.

The man came into the store and bought the book.

And this is interesting: Third Place began carrying the Kobo e-reader last fall. Its catalog has 3 million titles, and when you register your account with your favorite independent bookstore, a portion of every e-book purchase supports the store.

I told Harriman “The Art of Power” cost $10 less on Amazon than it did here (that was the paperback; the hardcover cost $15 less). She talked about Amazon’s blatantly predatory business practices but acknowledged that most people do the best they can with the money they have.

“To some people, $10 means dinner, so I’m not so quick to judge,” Harriman said. “But if they have an iPhone” — she smiled — “it’s probably not dinner.”

I grabbed “The Art of Power,” plopped it on the counter and paid.

The tree of knowledge is of good and evil, and technology is giving us all a taste. I bought my book for $35, but I could’ve gotten it for $18. Conclusion? I paid a showrooming fee of $17.

Did it feel good to support the store and acknowledge its role in my discovery? Yes.

Did it feel good to overpay by 100 percent? Absolutely not.

What will I do next time?

Honestly, I don’t know.

Update: I’ve heard a lot of thoughtful feedback on this column. Two follow-up posts round some of it up: To showroom or not to showroom: Key questions to ask yourself and ‘Reverse’ showroomers browse online retailers to support local businesses. Check ‘em out.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

Comments | More in Books, Column, Disruption, Habits, Seattle

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