“Showrooming,” the practice in which consumers check out merchandise in a physical store and then buy it at a cheaper price online, is the bane of brick-and-mortar retailers everywhere. It’s got to be extra insulting when customers use a smartphone to shop around while they’re inside the store. Increasingly, though, retailers are battling back against showrooming by mimicking showrooming, encouraging shoppers to whip out their smartphones right in the store aisles.
To try to put an end to showrooming, retailers have rolled out apps, mobile-shopping tools, and online features that operate a lot like showrooming. The main difference is that the tools offered by retailers steer sales back to the physical store or its website, rather than a competitor such as Amazon. And usually, the price-cutting giant that is Amazon, which really launched the practice of showrooming, is indeed the main target of anti-showrooming efforts.
Walmart, which some observers say will duke it out with Amazon for worldwide retail supremacy in this century, recently added something called “In-Store Mode” to its iPhone app. Launch the app in a Walmart store, and you’ll be prompted to enter the mode, which allows you to scan bar codes for price checks, customer reviews, and further info about the product. It also lets you access the latest ads, discounts, and QR (quick response) codes, which may lower the prices listed in the store.
Starting in May, all Target shoppers can use the Shopkick app, in which you accumulate points, or “kicks,” by scanning merchandise in the store. Kicks can be traded in for gift cards, iTunes downloads, and the like, and the hope for Target is that shoppers who scan goods are much more likely to buy those goods.
The trade publication Internet Retailer reports that Best Buy is combating showrooming by allowing customers to shop online in stores if they don’t have mobile devices handy. Salespeople and Geek Squad workers are being equipped with tablets and other devices so that they can help shoppers find more detail on products and look up reviews.
Of showrooming, Best Buy interim CEO G. “Mike” Mikan said last week to shareholders, “Ending that trend is a top priority for our team. Carol Spieckerman, of the retail consulting firm Newmarketbuilders, is one of the observers to doubt Best Buy can counter showrooming effectivly:
“Showrooming is uniquely an Achilles’ heel for the consumer electronics retailer,” Spieckerman said. Best Buy is thinking, “‘If we get the customer in the door, we’ve got to close the sale.’ But there is a perception that Best Buy is very agenda-driven, that it only wants to sell customers what it wants to sell them versus what they actually need.”
Amazon’s advantage over Best Buy, and over most retailers for that matter, is that it doesn’t care if customers buy anything in particular, so long as they buy something that’s sold at the site—and almost everything is now sold at Amazon.com.
Best Buy is in an especially tight spot because it’s getting squeezed by Amazon and showrooming on the one hand, and by brick-and-mortar giant Walmart on the other. The Star-Tribune observed that soon after Best Buy announced it was closing 50 stores in 2012, Walmart took out full-page ads in newspapers reading: “Did your local Best Buy just close? We have the top brands and low prices.”
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Sun reports that even supermarkets are getting involved in showrooming squabbles. The grocery chain has introduced the “Just 4 U” digital savings program at various locations around the country, which sends personalized deals to shoppers when they’re in the store. As a Safeway executive told the Sun, the initiative is intended to stop customers from buying goods from competitors at cheaper prices:
“This will make it more convenient for people to shop more exclusively at Safeway,” Steve Neibergall, president of Safeway’s Eastern Division, said in an interview last week. “Everyone is looking for savings and bargains. When people see how much money they can save … they won’t feel they have to go to Target or Walmart.”
What’s curious, and perhaps foolish, is that retailers are trying to figure out ways to use mobile shopping tools to stop consumers from shopping around, while tablets and phones are, in fact, designed to make shopping around as easy as possible.