As a retail phenomenon, #showrooming exposes a conflict of interest between online and traditional retailers. Many shoppers will examine a product in a traditional store, and then buy it from an online retailer or discount warehouse. The first retailer incurs costs - including cashflow, wear and tear on the product, as well as unproductive use of staff time and knowledge - while the second retailer takes the revenue.
To complete the story, there may be another class of customer, who is happy to buy the
ex-demonstration product from the first retailer at a discounted price. Thus there are five
distinct roles in this game: the product supplier, the first and second
retailer, the first and second customer. (In addition, if the customers are using their mobile phones in the stores, we should add the players in the mobile ecosystem.)
The earliest manifestation of this I can remember was buying records. You could listen to an LP in the record store, and then get a pristine copy (without the shop assistant's fingerprints) by mail order from a company appropriately called "Virgin".
Many retailers believe they lose out from this phenomenon, and some have attempted to prevent it. (Ever wondered why you don't get a good cellphone signal inside a large store?) Earlier this year, both Target and Wal-Mart decided to stop stocking Amazon devices, although continuing to stock Apple devices. More recently, Wal-Mart has changed its position, and now claims to embrace showrooming.
By singling out Amazon, Target and Wal-Mart were making it clear that it is Amazon's role as a retailer that they regard as a competitive threat. Although Apple also sells its devices online, it is presumably not regarded as an equivalent threat. In which case, banning Amazon products looks like a gesture of despair rather than an effective tactic.
Thinking of this as a multi-sided market prompts us to look at the direct and indirect flows of value between the players. It is as if the first retailer is providing an unpaid "service" to the second retailer, and the first customer is providing an unpaid "service" to the second customer. At present these are not genuine services, but it is possible to conceive of an ecosystem in which the product supplier or second retailer paid some form of commission to the first retailer. For all I know, that may already happen in some sectors.
Wal-Mart hopes to control showrooming by encouraging its customers to use its own mobile app, which attempts to steer customers towards its own online store. I wonder how many customers will accept this control, and how many will take the trouble to resist it.
Some large High Street retailers seem to have given up the idea of stocking goods: if you like something on display, you can order it. This has long been true for large furniture items such as beds, but is becoming more common for smaller items, as Simon Heffer complains.
Meanwhile, showrooming can work both ways. Last week I ordered a book from my local bookshop, having previously looked it up on Amazon. It was 5pm Friday when I placed the order, and they phoned me at 11am on Saturday to tell me it had arrived. (If I'd ordered it from Amazon, paying extra for 48 hour delivery, when would it have arrived? Monday, Tuesday?) So that's showrooming in reverse.
Finally, instead of selling individual products, the showroom itself can become the experience. @KBlazeCarlson sees IKEA as a prime example, and quotes Alan Penn, professor of Architectural and Urban Computing at UCL, describing the IKEA experience as "psychologically disruptive". "Part of their strategy is to take you past everything," he says. "They get you to buy stuff you really hadn’t intended on. And
that, I think, is quite a trick."
Chris Petersen adds, "Instead of product centric merchandising, IKEA’s showroom is perhaps the ultimate place merchandising, where the consumer solution is focused on the most personalized dimension – the consumer’s own lifestyle and living space." Whether IKEA can replicate this experience online in the virtual world, as suggested in Patrick Nelson's piece, is another matter.
Kathryn Blaze Carlson, Enter the maze: Ikea, Costco, other retailers know how to get you to buy more (National Post, June 2012)
Simon Heffer, My futile hunt for a lamp in John Lewis reveals why the High Street is doomed (Daily Mail 15 January 2013)
Brett Molina, Is 'showrooming' behind Target move to drop Kindle? (USA Today, May 2012)
Patrick Nelson, Brick-and-Mortar's Showrooming Scourge (E-Commerce Times, Nov 2012) via First Insight
Chris Petersen, To beat showrooming … change the showroom! (IMS results count, June 2012)
Marcus Wohlsen, Walmart.com CEO: We Embrace Showrooming (Wired, Nov 2012)
Amazon's Showrooming Effect And Quick Growth Threaten Wal-Mart (Forbes, Sept 2012)
Related posts: Showrooming in the Knowledge Economy (December 2012), Predictive Showrooming (December 2012)
Updated 16 January 2013