Online shopping isn’t going away, but does that mean stores as we know them might?
A dirty phrase being bandied about in our industry lately is “showrooming.” Here’s how it works: A consumer enters a store to browse. He touches the merchandise, learns about features from a trained employee and possibly even gets fitted. Seconds later, he whips out a smartphone and conducts a nationwide search to see if the same item is offered elsewhere for less. If the retailer doesn’t match the lower price, many consumers walk out and buy the item online. Showrooming isn’t illegal and some shoppers don’t even realize it’s offensive. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that if this scenario plays out too often in a store, that store might eventually disappear. To that end, a recent Harris Interactive study noted 125 million Americans now use smartphones to comparison shop and four in 10 adults confessed to showrooming during the recent holiday season.
What if one day there were no more showrooms to showroom in? Would consumers really be satisfied shopping virtually, given the lag time between buying and trying on a purchase? If not satisfied, would they be willing to start the process all over again? Suddenly, the Internet doesn’t seem all that quick, convenient or enjoyable. It seems cumbersome, inefficient and exasperating.
I was reminded of the tremendous value a physical store offers during a recent bike ride. As I made my way from New York across the George Washington Bridge, I realized my rear wheel was leaking air and, worse, upon quick inspection, my tire was shot. I would need more than a spare inner tube to continue my ride. I knew a bike store had recently opened about a quarter mile north of the bridge on the New Jersey side. This happens to be a location hundreds of cyclists pass every weekend when the weather is nice on their way into and out of the scenic lower Hudson Valley region. It’s become a convenient meeting place for group rides, and the owners have added to its appeal with patio tables and umbrellas, free water refills and pumps. There’s also a selection of sports drinks and energy bars for sale as well as facilities for those who need to make a pit stop.
But the best part of this store is its pit crew of bicycle mechanics. That Sunday morning, I came upon a triage unit tending to flats, broken chains and derailleurs, loose brake cables…you name it. Despite the crowd, an employee greeted me within seconds, asked what was wrong and got me a new tire—one that even matched my yellow-trimmed front wheel. He assured me his team would have my wheel fixed in a few minutes. I was left to browse the store’s array of racing bikes and accessories. What avid cyclist doesn’t mind spending a few minutes drooling over carbon-framed eye candy?
Beyond tantalizing patrons with gleaming racing bikes, this store serves a vital purpose for the local riding community: maintenance on demand. I was out the door in 15 minutes and enjoying my ride again—all for $90. The tire and inner tube were priced competitively, which means the labor came to less than $25. In three simple words, “I’ll take it.” The prompt, courteous service made my experience even more pleasant and left me more willing to frequent the store in the future. In fact, I feel an obligation to do so in the hopes that it will still be in business the next time I run into a mechanical issue.
If the staff had tried to price-gouge me because they had me over a flat tire, so to speak, I would have changed my flat myself and headed home. This store’s best chance for long-term survival lies in its service—not in preying on hapless cyclists. Word travels fast among the area’s weekend warriors. If the place is a clip joint, they’ll take their business elsewhere.
Brick-and-mortar shoe stores offer similar value. Shoes aren’t going away anytime soon. People need proper fitting. And millions of them drool over the latest styles, which means a store with cool ambiance and fashions provides entertainment. Add knowledgeable, courteous sales staff to the mix, and odds are good that customers will whip out their wallets instead of their smartphones.
Besides, what’s the alternative? Accusing customers of stealing your services and shooing them out of your store? That’s no good for business. Technology isn’t going away, so retailers must play to their strengths: service, selection and setting. And if a particular brand keeps popping up all over the Internet at discount prices, perhaps it’s time to carry others with cleaner distribution. There are hundreds of them itching for the opportunity.