The following is a response to Emma Straub’s Time.com piece, “Browse at a Bookstore, Buy at Amazon: The Evil of Showrooming.”
Dear Ms. Straub,
I was surprised to learn, in your recent article on Time.com, that I am evil. While I am generally regarded as an obnoxious smartass, I had foolishly believed, until I read your article, that only my wife’s cat and my first-grade teacher, Sister Victorine, saw me as truly evil.
Admittedly, you did not single me out as the devil’s spawn; you took a broad swipe at a large and growing segment of your own customer base – those who [shudder] scan the barcodes on books with their smartphones while browsing in independent bookstores like yours. You reached the summary judgment that we lowly, “sneaky” barcode scanners are “selling out” your bookstore by using it as a showroom to browse books that we intend to purchase from the depths of Hades itself, Amazon.com.
I understand why independent booksellers and other local merchants are vexed by the problem of shoppers defecting to Amazon for lower prices; White Horse’s own Digital Futures Group studied this phenomenon in its report on mobile retail behavior. But perhaps my own buying habits will prove illuminating. When I’m not busy plotting cruelties to inflict on puppies, small children, and the elderly, I collect first editions of postmodern fiction. My geeky preferences pretty much require me to be democratic in my book buying; I buy books from Amazon about once a month, but I more frequently buy from the greatest independent bookseller on the planet, Portland’s own Powell’s City of Books.
Powell’s is often the best place to buy older first editions, and often not the best place to buy newer ones. In the latter case, I sometimes – yes, it’s true – scan the barcode. I do so partly to read reviews, but if the price is much better at Amazon, sometimes they get the sale. (Despite rumors that evil is highly profitable, I have so far failed to cash in.) Much more often, I’m caught up in the reverie of book smells, great writing, and my own impulse control issues, and I buy the book at Powell’s despite the price difference.
It’s simple, really: Powell’s wins me over because I feel great about going there, and that’s a sure way to trump price with nearly any customer, in any context. Would I feel great about visiting your bookstore, with you glaring at me over the rims of your hipster glasses as I fumble with my smartphone? Probably not. The stance on mobile browsing that you endorse – seething hostility – is the worst one available, and it’s sure to lose you customers.
Instead, retailers need to embrace mobile browsing as an inevitable evolution in consumer behavior and plot strategies to take advantage of it. For instance, Powell’s, despite great service and selection, doesn’t make the reviews on its website easily accessible via mobile. Would doing so make me less likely to visit Amazon while in the store? Yes it would. Not every retailer can offer reviews, but every retailer can offer better customer service, which includes making the customer feel welcome to do whatever they need to do to reach a purchase decision.
The bottom line is that no business, large or small, is entitled to its customers. My own agency has to go out and make the case for ourselves against our larger competitors every day, and we will never win that case by blaming or resenting the customer. As consumer behavior evolves to include in-aisle mobile browsing, retailers must evolve too, or risk obsolescence. For booksellers, it’s not enough to love books – you also have to love readers. Even the evil ones.