Showrooming: Not Just for Barcodes Anymore

Oh, those folks who roam from shelf to shelf with their smartphones, finding what they want and scanning barcodes to see where they can find it cheapest.  They dart between the stacks, strenuously avoiding eye contact, knowing they are doing you a disservice but putting it out of mind by not actually speaking to a live human being.

Olsson's Booksellers

“Hey, thanks so much for putting us out of business!”

They have enough self-awareness to feel shame.  Not enough shame to shop where they browse (or buy where they shop, or however Buy Local enthusiasts want to phrase it this week) but enough shame to hide their actions.

There’s another form of customer who doesn’t showroom but is not timid about making comparisons to online prices.  He’ll march to the register, slam a hardcover copy of Dust to Dust on the counter, and demand to know why we’re charging $26.99 for a book he can get for twelve bucks on Amazon.  How do we sleep at night?  More often than not, this customer is a member of our Book Club who we haven’t seen in a number of years.  He’s reaffirming in his mind why he doesn’t come to Books & Books anymore (nevermind that he found Dust to Dust on the employee recommendation display, whereas its 611,173rd Amazon sales ranking may have made it easy to miss).  He’ll buy the book grudgingly – with a discount depending on who took care of him and what mood s/he was in – and leave knowing he’s made the right decision to save money online rather than be a Books & Books regular.  Oddly, he’s buying that book so he can sleep at night.

Seriously, fuck Amazon.

The third “customer” is the most frustrating.  Maybe you share a good ten, fifteen, twenty minutes talking books (if you have an unpopular obsession then you know how pleasurable this can be, just talking with someone who shares it).  You wander the stacks, pulling titles, talking about your favorites.  After a time, you direct her to the registers so she can be rung up.

“Oh, that’s okay,” she laughs blithely, “I’ll just buy them on Amazon.”

Or the inventory systems lists a copy of Fosse you can’t find.  You try biography, theater, dance, and film.  You even try the new release section.  When that proves fruitless you recommend Martin Gottfried’s All His Jazz and a 30th anniversary DVD of Caberet because you’ve got them in stock.

“Thanks anyway, I’ll just buy it on Amazon.”

You offer to order it and call them when it arrives in a week.  You offer to ship it directly to their house to cut the wait time down to two or three days.  You offer fame, you offer power, you offer all that you have and more…

“I’ll just buy it on Amazon.”

rob gordon rages

“Get your Bezos-stink OUTTA MY STORE!

I always wish I knew where these folks work.  I imagine the satisfaction of going to their bank and telling them, “Thanks for all the helpful info on retirement planning but Wells Fargo offers better rates.”  Of going to their restaurant and saying, “Wow, this menu looks great and the dishes smell divine but I can get cheaper food at The Olive Garden.”  Of going to their office and saying, “Sure you take my insurance but I think I’ll go to Urgent Care; they play movies in the waiting room.”

Why make a point of telling me you’re going to the competition, why not just say “I’ll think about it” and go on with your day?

I don’t think these customers hate other people, or fail to see folks in customer service positions as fellow human beings, I think this goes back to how the average book buyer sees bookstores: they are an extension of the book business, of which Amazon is the Lord High Ruler, so no matter where you buy a book it has to be good for the stores.  Right?

olsson's is closed

Wrong.

In this way of looking at the book world, independent bookstores are all just Amazon affiliates, and foot-traffic is no different than a page view.  In 2011, Amazon even made individuals into affiliates for the holiday season, offering lower prices to anyone who used an app to scan products at a physical store.  Folks were happy to gather data for the online behemoth and leave stores empty-handed.  As a bonus for Amazon, it got people accustomed to showrooming.  Don’t be shy, Amazon said, knowing they could beat any price put forth by a bricks-and-mortar location, celebrate showrooming.  If the stores can’t take it, then they’re dinosaurs and they deserve to go extinct.

Amazon stopped the price incentive – they just wanted to get people in the habit, anyway – but they have improved the app.  No longer do you have to worry about looking for a barcode, because the price check app has added image recognition.

If this is a question of saving money to you, then I ask you to look long term.  Used to be when people shopped online they’d use Google to search for an item.  Now, they use Amazon first.  When Amazon becomes the only place to shop, do you think they’ll keep prices low out of the kindness of their hearts?

They won’t.

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5 thoughts on “Showrooming: Not Just for Barcodes Anymore

  1. (Lookout, soapbox stuff below…)

    Cautiously, I’ve always eyed progress from the sidelines; usually joining the easily swayed masses as a reluctant late-comer. In this instance, I feel my reluctance is validated, and I willingly hesitate.

    Plainly, a world without bookstores will be a sad world indeed, for writers and readers alike. Period.

    As the old chestnut goes, ‘you can’t stop progress,’ but isn’t progress supposed to mean ‘a move forward’?
    If so, progress may need redefining.

    And, having spent three years working in a bookstore, I can’t properly express my opinion concerning ‘showrooming’ without releasing a tirade of well aimed profanities. We were small enough (and specialized enough to know we wouldn’t lose our clientele), to ban the use of all phones and electronic devices. If you didn’t comply with store policy, there was the door!

    That was two years ago. Ah, them’s were the days…try and do that now and see how people would react!

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    • We have an amazing woman at our Miami Beach store who can gotten a bit of a reputation with local designers. She listens to them describe the project, spends time putting together a collection, and the designers stop in to buy them all at once. The more they do it, the less they even question what she’s pulled. They just leave a credit card on file and have the books boxed and waiting.

      This is the level of attention and expertise we need to bring if we expect to keep the doors open.

      There’s also a less expert way to use our staff. Two customers called the Gables store this holiday season – two that I overheard but it’s possible there were more – and asked if they could to facetime or Skype with an employee. They wanted the employee to wander the store and browse the stacks while they sat at home and watched, so they could decide what to buy. This idea sounds utterly bizarre to me but both customers were flabbergasted that this was a service we wouldn’t provide.

      This is something I could see happening – customer service personnel as virtual shoppers.

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      • I’m busy imagining I’ve got a helmet cam on and a microphone: ‘Would you like fries with that copy of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, or shall I just super-size it for another .60 cents?’ 🙂

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  2. How does showrooming apply to Barnes & Nobles? Are you sad to see Borders books evaporate? Is it just Amazon or does Half.com have the same effect?

    Curious and interested in your thoughts. As a musician (aspiring) I’m on your side. The difference is musicians attempt to catch a dying breath by seeking payment for performances. Is there an equivalent for books?

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    • The most blatent showrooming I’ve ever seen was at a Barnes & Noble. I was shopping there for work and I overheard a couple in the toy section. She would call out items and he’d look them up on his phone, and they were as loud as they needed to be to communicate during a holiday rush. Showrooming is something all physical retailers must face.

      The difference is that Barnes & Nobles’ website is strong. You can order online and see inventory in real time at a location near you. You can even grab something off their shelves, look it up on Barnes & Noble.com, and spend less for it online if you’re willing to wait the extra shipping time. Most indies don’t have the resources to maintain a fabulous website that’s fully integrated with their physical locations, that looks and operates on the same level as their store. And the search analytics, comparatively, are a joke. You can know exactly what you’re looking for at Books & Books.com and still not find it until the 4th page (not that we’ve given up – we’re always trying to improve our online experience).

      I was very sad to see Borders go. They were my intro to bookselling and I liked their eclectic selection better than B&N. Borders made a lot of bad decisions which cost them but the final death was all about real-estate. We’re seeing it now with all the B&N closings; book sales can’t support the square-footage that it used to. I hope the parring down – closing unprofitable stores and moving huge locations to smaller spaces – works better for B&N than it did for Blockbuster.

      Amazon is becoming synonymous with shopping – four times as many product searches start at Amazon than at Google – so Half.com doesn’t really factor in. The way no one says “Hold on, let me Bing it” when they want to look something up, none of our customers mention Half.com. Of course they might ultimately end up there, as most sellers on Half.com choose to be Amazon affiliates to reach a larger audience.

      One day most books will be digital. After explosive growth ebooks have leveled off at about 30% of book sales the last 2 years but I still see it happening eventually. I think that the way a segment of music buyers swear by vinyl, there will always be a buyer for physical books. That’s the book-music comparison that feels most relevant to me.

      Many authors who have hit it big – your E.L. James and Hugh Howeys – started off with free online content (ie, stories). Eventually they self-published and started charging, and now they’re both published with the Big Six. There’s a line of thinking at the publishers which views self-publishing as a proving ground. I think musicians could follow that same model but I must confess I know little about that world.

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