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Mónica Guzmán

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

September 20, 2014 at 8:00 PM

In battle with Amazon, all local businesses need is love

(Photo by MorBCN on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

(Photo by MorBCN on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Last spring, Ravenna Third Place Books: I see a book I like, I grab my phone, I take a picture of the book to remind myself to buy it cheaper on Amazon.com.

Why? It makes sense to save money.

Last week, Ravenna Third Place Books: I want a book, I don’t know which book, my husband grabs his phone, he finds a good book on Amazon, we buy the book from the store, we don’t even look at the price.

Why? The price no longer mattered.

And so ends my conversion — at Third Place Books, at least — from what’s known as a “showroomer” to what’s known as a “reverse showroomer.”

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Some of you may remember its beginning. I wrote a column in May 2013 about how awful I felt after I had snapped that pic of the book I planned to buy online. It seemed smart, but was it exploitative?

You “showroom” when you browse physical stores to find products you’ll buy more cheaply online. Local bookstores, unable to compete with Amazon’s prices, are more vulnerable than anyone. I was facing, I wrote, the “showroomer’s dilemma.”

The column hit a nerve. Emails flooded my inbox. Then Elliott Bay Book Company posted a link to the piece on signs it put up around the store. “Are you showrooming?” the signs asked.

“No whining that online is killing them, or berating the showroomers,” wrote Seattle marketer Bianca Smith. “Just a subtle guilt trip and some education.”

Showrooming is big, and it could change everything. As of December, 46 percent of Americans admitted to having showroomed, up from 40 percent halfway through last year, according to a poll by Harris Interactive.

But reverse showrooming — browsing online stores to plan what might be pricier and less convenient in-store buys — is the far more interesting behavior.

There’s nothing to learn when shoppers act to save money and time.

But when they don’t, that’s bound to tell you something.

Take Seattle reader Matt King, 46, a manager at a local not-for-profit agency. He wanted to learn about aboriginal cultures after returning from a trip to Australia earlier this year. He browsed his favorite bookstore for titles on the topic, but it didn’t carry any.

So he went to Amazon, where the majority of showrooming journeys end … and the majority of reverse showrooming journeys begin.

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King could have bought the books he found listed for a competitive price right there on the Web, saving himself more hassle. But he didn’t.

He wrote down their titles, went back to his bookstore and asked if the store would order copies of the books for him. It did.

King didn’t do this to make a point, he told me, or to “score one for the little guy” against Amazon.
He did it because he loves his bookstore and doesn’t see Amazon as a competitor at all.

“They offer a very convenient book-search service, and I’m so glad that it’s free!” he wrote.

Before last year I would have found that cute but silly. Now I get it.

There are two ways to your wallet: Your brain and your heart.

Amazon is cheaper, but it doesn’t have a floor mat where I can read board books to my son. Amazon is more convenient, but it doesn’t smile and wave as I come in, set a cup of coffee next to my laptop or let me stretch my legs, pace its aisles and relax into a physical space that invites — but never demands — my attention.

I thought if anything was going to break me out of the cold, hard, logic of showrooming, it would be a warrior-like conviction to save all local businesses from the menace of online retail.

But I didn’t have to hate Amazon. I just had to love a store.

And that, I guess, is worth more than money.

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, Habits, Money, Retail, Seattle

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