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‘Feel free to browse’ … for how much longer?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013
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‘Feel free to browse’ often strikes me as an odd sign in many shop windows.  Why wouldn’t I feel free to do so?  Well, the answer should have struck me by now.  Apparently, many ‘bricks and mortar’ retailers are feeling the pressure from ‘showrooming’ – when people see something they wanted in a shop, try it, check the price online on their smartphone, find it’s cheaper, and walk out.

I’ve just been reading about the phenomenon and was reminded of the sign I’ve used to illustrate this blog, which appeared in a shop window after the British camera chain went into administration. "The staff at Jessops would like to thank you for shopping with Amazon". (I think any discussion of tax avoidance can be saved for another occasion).

According to the article, the problem of showrooming is a growing headache for the struggling High Street, especially for retailers of gadgets, books and cosmetics.  According to quoted research, 24% of people showroomed while Christmas shopping - and 40% of them took their business elsewhere.  Bricks and mortar shops have to pay rent, bills and staff salaries. But online retailers can offer cheaper prices because they don't.  So the online giants get a benefit from the very existence of bricks and mortar shops, without paying the associated costs.

What should traditional shops do in response?  It seems crazy to ask people to pay to browse, but maybe it isn’t.  The chief executive of one bookseller recently suggested the idea of charging a fee for browsing bookshops is "not that insane".  An Australian speciality food shop recently raised eyebrows by charging $5 (£3.37) just for browsing. And some shoe and clothes stores in America and Australia have also tried a "fitting fee". In all instances the fee is taken off the bill when someone buys something. Other retailers remain unconvinced.  One says "you've just got to make your retail environment pleasant, have people here who know what they're talking about and try to embarrass them out of doing it."

Coaxing the customer into being willing to pay more is the way, says another retail consultant.  Here’s another good quote (especially if you’re preparing for the June 2013 OCR F297 strategy paper).  "I'm a passionate cyclist and I go to a shop that is much more expensive than the internet. But they will build a cycle for you, watch you ride up and down the street or even ride out with you.  By the time you've been there for an hour, their enthusiasm is so overwhelming that you really don't want to go elsewhere."

Of course, online retailers have an interest in the survival of bricks and mortar shops. If web-based retailers lure so many showroomers, what will they do if there are no showrooms left?  Online retailers do well out of showrooming and companies like Amazon may well decide that they need to open up their own showrooms.

You can read more about the new tactics to get you spending here.


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