A name has been given to an evil that plagues independent bookstores, a practice that was blamed largely for the demise of the Borders bookstore chain: showrooming. This practice, which affects mom-and-pop retailers across possibly every industry but especially the bookselling profession, occurs when consumers enter a local physical retail shop in order to find information and prices, then make their purchases online instead; some consumers have been caught in the act of making the online purchase even before leaving the store.
While obviously not illegal and even supported by apps that are designed specifically to let consumers scan a barcode with their smartphones in order to compare prices from online retailers, the practice itself is fairly shameful. Many retailers are already feeling the pinch of losing out to online retailers who can conduct their businesses across a broader consumer base and without the same overhead as paying rent on Main Street, then add to this the fact that faux-customers enter these places of business only to comparison shop. It’s pretty shabby.
One store, Elliott Bay Book Co., has taken to attempting to get customers to think about their actions. Signs are posted throughout the stacks that warn customers against the practice, even providing a QR code that links to an article that details the after effects of this practice. Yet another business, publisher Educational Development Corp., went so far as to pull their titles from Amazon due to their salesmen giving lengthy presentations to corporate consumers at company expense, and then having those potential customers make the purchase from Amazon.
But will these tactics actually prove effective? After all, if a consumer is willing to physically stand in an independent bookstore and make the purchase on their smartphone (or on their tablet, using the store’s wifi connection as they do), will simply pointing out how it harms small businesses enough?
One option would be to actively encourage the online purchasing, and even go so far as to provide a counter top computer to conduct these transactions while directing the customer to the retailer through the store’s own website. At the very least the store could earn affiliate benefits on the transaction. Customers who need the instant purchase of the title will buy it in store, and those who can afford to wait in order to save on the discount can still help the business.
As companies call attention to the harmful effects of the problem, ideally consumers will think twice about the damage they are doing within their own communities; otherwise, they will hopefully not be the ones to complain about the death of small businesses at the hands of big box retailers.