‘‘Just browsing’ may become a memory

by | Mar 31, 2013 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Anyone in retail is familiar with this scene: A customer comes in, asks for help. He tries things on, tests things out, maybe takes some literature, writes down model numbers or designer names.

Then, when the time comes to close the sale, the customer says, “I’m still thinking. Give me your card, and I’ll get back to you soon.”

You never see him again.

Chances are he went to the Internet to make the purchase, having gleaned everything possible from the in-person experience. It’s called “showrooming.”

The Web-based store gets the nod.

The brick-and-mortar store gets nada.

One retailer in Australia has had enough. Celiac Supplies, a specialty foods store in Brisbane, posted a sign on the door that says a $5 fee will be charged for anyone who is “just looking.”

In explaining the policy, the sign read: “There has been a high volume of people who use this store as a reference and then purchase goods elsewhere…. This policy is in line with many other clothing, shoe and electronic stores who are also facing the same issue.”

The $5 fee is credited for anyone making a purchase. And the store doesn’t charge kids, retirees or regular customers. But naturally, as soon as this story circulated on the Web, the policy was blasted by critics – on the Web.

I doubt the store will be better off. And it might have stated things more gracefully.

But I do think it has a point.

The sad tale of Borders

We are in such a rush to lead our lives on the Internet, we overlook what we are doing to our lives outside of it. Yes, I know everyone wants a good price. But Internet retailers can beat the prices of your local store for many reasons, including no overhead for rent, property taxes, electricity, utilities, security, clean up or the salaries of all those nice salespeople who tell you everything so that you can buy it on the Web – where most sellers don’t even provide a phone number.

They also might be overseas or in a cheaper state. Oh, and you don’t always get charged sales tax.

But if we keep ordering everything online, there may be nowhere to shop but online. Look at Borders. Once a thriving business with hundreds of bookstores, it eventually sunk under the weight of a shrinking market and the cost of operating giant stores.

Now Borders is kaput. Its buildings were torn down or became vacant eyesores. The lovely experience of browsing its aisles is gone.

Sure, online booksellers are thriving. But what does that do for your neighborhood? Or, for that matter, your neighbors?

And Borders was a multinational chain when it went down. Imagine life for the mom-and-pop shop.

Lack of human interaction

Historians will tell you that nothing changed the American retail experience in the 20th Century more than the shopping mall. Once developers clustered hundreds of stores in a single place (with ample parking), the American Main Street all but disappeared. People stopped seeing each other in the center of town. They felt less connected to their community – certainly less connected to its businesses.

Well, the Internet, to me, will blow the shopping mall away. A recent IBM study showed that nearly half of all online purchases were a result of “showrooming,” meaning local stores get the tease, Web stores get the tally. It also found that 35% of consumers weren’t sure whether their next purchase would be retail or online.

You can feel where this is heading. And it’s a shame. Yes, business is cutthroat, and retailers may need to match online prices to stay afloat and integrate the Web more into their shopping experience.

But the one thing the Web still can’t deliver is the one-on-one touch, the smiling face, the conversation in the fitting-room area, the “see you next time” on the way out.

Don’t diminish such things as silly. They are part of an endangered category called “human contact.”

Charging $5 to look around may be short-sighted. But as the owner told a Brisbane newspaper, “I’m not doing community service.”

The thing is, she actually is. But if people don’t see it that way, she won’t be for long.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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