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Mónica Guzmán

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

May 6, 2013 at 3:32 PM

To showroom or not to showroom? Key questions to ask yourself

If you read my Sunday column this week on showrooming, browsing a physical store for items you buy online later, you may have noticed I didn’t come down one way or the other on the column’s central question — whether showrooming is right or wrong.

That’s because the answer, if there is one, is not that simple.

Consumer ethics is a tricky subject. On the one hand, we have and can be motivated by more than money. On the other hand, it’s difficult in a market=driven society to judge anyone for putting finances first.

Three readers told me they had showroomed, but didn’t know there was a word for it. Nor, they implied, had they thought of it as a habit with consequences.

If showrooming is nothing else, it’s that.

So it’s up to each of us who have or could showroom, I think, to make some decisions:

  • Consider the consequences of showrooming: Do you think they’re mostly good, mostly bad, or a little bit of both, depending on the circumstances?

You could think showrooming is good because it affirms consumers’ love of low prices and moves markets in that direction. You could think it’s bad because it threatens businesses and spaces that have unique value. Or, as I’ve heard from some, you could think it’s OK to showroom at a big store like Walmart or Barnes & Noble, but wrong to showroom at a local mom and pop shop.

  • Consider the impact of your behavior on the larger habit: Do you think your showrooming makes enough of a difference to feel compelled to act a certain way? 

If so, you’ll need to decide how you want to act going forward. If not, you can continue to act without regard, and see where things drift. Perhaps at your own risk.

Below are just a few of the thoughtful responses to the column I received. Find more reaction on the column comments and on Facebook.

“Wow, this is eye-opening. I never thought twice about showrooming. I guess for my friends and me, it’s just something we do: Ordering online is cheaper and easier, unless we want that book and we want it immediately. Pretty selfish way outlook on how we manage our purchasing power.”

– Vivian Luu

“It may be the bookstore’s issue to have an outdated business model, but it will become your issue if there are no physical bookstores anymore. That is, if you care — if you don’t, fine, but if you do, then it’s in your interest to buy at least some of your books in the place where you like to look at them. It’s not about guilt — it’s about paying for things you value, even if you don’t have to, the same way you might support Little League, or your church, or public radio, or a band whose music you could easily get for free.”

– Tom Nissley

“I’d say it’s not morally or ethically petty theft. Stores allow customers to browse for free in the hopes that they buy products, but customers are under no obligation to buy any products while there. The risk is showrooming, the benefit is impulse buys. The latter is less likely in an age where we all have the Internet in our pockets, but brick & mortar businesses have to adapt to survive this new reality. Showrooming has always existed, it’s just must simpler to do now than ever before.”

– Ken Shepherd

“The economics of retailing are changing. The experience of being able to browse a local bookstore is under threat because it IS more expensive than the new way Amazon has created. The shop owner is a little fish who has to pay big property owners for retail space and big distributors for inventory in the hopes that someone MIGHT come in and buy it. Then there’s advertising, insurance, payroll, etc. Unless people perceive that the local bookstore experience is worth paying extra for, it will go away.”

– Bob Gale

“My husband has worked for a furniture retail store for more than 30 years. He has experience, education, and design skills that cannot be duplicated on a website. The store carries an inventory of well over $1 million so that customers can look at, sit in, and feel the furniture. Moreover, the design staff is available to determine which products fill customer needs, explain features and benefits, coordinate fabrics and finishes, do space planning, and much more. Yet time and time again the designers, after spending considerable time with customers, find that the consumer leaves the store without buying. But, by this point, the consumer is well-armed with the information and usually even the photos and product names that he or she needs to order online! As you wrote, it is a “moral theft” – of the time and assets of the store and of the designer. Should retail stores start charging people for coming into the store, or for “just looking”? How else do they pay for the inventory, the energy bills, the staff wages and benefits, and all the other expenses of owning and operating a “bricks and mortar” business?”

– Kim Horne

Then there was this, in an email from a reader who preferred to remain anonymous:

My recent experience involving Showroomer’s Conundrum involved my shopping for a new bicycle helmet. I went to my local, independent bike shop with the intention of trying on helmets, determining size and make, then buying it through Amazon. The employee at the shop spent a good 20 minutes working with me around fitting questions, trying on different sizes, etc. I came very close to thanking him for his time, making up a lame excuse about “not really needing a new helmet right now”, then ordering it on-line at a much discounted price.

But I didn’t. I appreciated his time and energy. I bought it at full price. And, I go to this shop frequently for bike related assistance. Often, it is provided me at no cost, a statement as to their appreciation for my business.

So, what about the local, independent book store near where I live? Over decades I have given then my business, buying untold books from them. Then, I bought a Kindle. I’ll admit it – It is more convenient for me to read a book on this device. Three years ago, I would have told you in no uncertain terms that it would be a cold day in hell when I bought an e-reader.

What can I say?

Seen a story that caught your eye re: digital life? Email me at mguzman@seattletimes.com or reach me on Twitter or Facebook.

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