A customer with smartphone in hand walks into Runner's Roost, peruses the wall of footwear, snaps pictures and scans barcodes and bolts out.
What just happened?
It's called "showrooming," and it is starting to hurt some businesses. Customers visit a store, examine merchandise, touch it and sometimes even try it on, then look online for a cheaper price.
"It's like we're doing the work for these online companies; accommodating customers takes time and energy," said Jamie Bavaro, a sales associate at the Runner's Roost in Orchard Park. "Customers come in and try on shoes and then go spend their money online."
Using brick-and-mortar stores to sample products in person and then buying them from online competitors for less may be a way to save money, but for traditional stores it is a threat. It is a global phenomenon and an almost daily occurrence at Runner's Roost.
Bolstered by smartphone apps that make price comparison handy, retailers are increasingly worried about the trend.
Apps like ShopSavvy that work on many smartphones arm consumers with the ability to scan barcodes on a wide variety of merchandise - from a bottle of soda to books to flat-screen TVs - for an almost instant list of prices from online and nearby retailers carrying the same products. And e-commerce sites, like Amazon.com, which experts say is attracting the bulk of showrooming business, have their own apps that allow searching and scanning of items.
"I do see people trying to scan products with their phones and taking pictures," Bavaro said. "We know what they are doing."
One national expert said the practice is a natural outgrowth of the increased use of and reliance on technology.
Smartphones with their Internet capabilities have made the Web portable, creating informed and empowered consumers, said Matt Cava, director of mobile solutions for Vibes, a mobile marketing and technology company, which released its first study, "Vibes Mobile Consumer Report," last week. It found that 90 percent of shoppers carry their phones with them in stores, and 84 percent use their devices to research products to ensure they are getting the product they want and the best deal. And 33 percent of respondents admitted to comparison shopping at a competitor's site while shopping at another store, the report said.
The use of smartphones for comparison shopping is accelerating. A 2011 study found that 59 percent of smartphone owners used their devices for showrooming, up from 40 percent the year before. In 2009, just 14 percent used them, according to InsightExpress' findings.
Adapting to compete
The siphoning of business from traditional stores to e-commerce sites via showrooming could lead to long range changes in the retail space. Small stores, especially mom-and-pop shops, could be forced out of business, taking with them the jobs, property taxes and sales taxes they generate.
"It's becoming more and more prevalent; I see four to five people a week doing it," Bavaro said. "It's a concern. In the short-term? Not so much. But when you start thinking long term, it could be a problem."
For starters, the playing field between brick-and-mortar versus e-commerce isn't level. Web-only companies are bare-bones operations, free of fixed costs, allowing them to offer lower prices than traditional stores. And many sites do not charge sales tax, although consumers are supposed to declare that unpaid tax on their state taxes.
National retailers are getting hit hard by the trend. Cava said showrooming occurs more frequently when consumers are considering larger, more expensive purchases, such as electronics and furniture. The larger chains - while trying to curb the practice - are merging in-store and online businesses for seamless, quicker and cheaper transactions, without shipping fees.
For example, Walmart and Sears offer in-store pick-up for online purchases. Target has asked its suppliers for exclusive products and for special pricing to help it compete with Web-based stores. Best Buy, which experts say has suffered the most from showrooming, especially its big-ticket items like computers and televisions, moved away from the universal barcodes and created its own for its pricier merchandise to prevent scanning with apps.
Cava said traditional companies should embrace consumers increasing reliance on mobile technology by creating store apps and other ways to communicate to shoppers in real time while they are in store.
Service and price
But for small, local businesses, like Runner's Roost, operating without an online sales arm, showrooming is more of challenge to curb. It not only cuts into sales, but it can decrease productivity as employees spend time assisting customers who end up buying online. Bavaro recalls tending to a customer for an hour, as she requested to see and fit various running shoes. She finally made a choice and bought the pair she really liked but the next day she returned the footwear for no apparent reason. Bavaro suspected showrooming.
"I believe she found a cheaper price online," he said.
At Runner's Roost, blatant showrooming is greeted with friendly customer service. Bavaro said the goal is to win over the customer. Many do end up buying at the store.
At JB's Tennis Shop in Williamsville, the speciality business has tackled showrooming by offering prices lower in store than its online rivals. Additionally, the store also has an e-commerce site.
Some customers have scanned or snapped photos at JBs, but their price comparison efforts were in vain, said Phil Primerano, manager of the store.
"People are surprised, they're like 'How come you have it lower than online?'?" he said.
In cases when JB's prices are higher, they do price matching. But the store is vigilante and routinely monitors its Internet competitors' prices.
"We are constantly online, trying to ensure we are offering the best prices," Primerano said. "That approach to business has worked for us."