As we were enjoying celebratory cake and champagne after Jenny Milchman’s booksigning here at my shop (she had won the Mary Higgins Clark Award the previous evening), one of the attendees asked me about a subject that’s frequently on my mind, but which I don’t usually bring up at festive occasions. The topic was “showrooming,” the practice of seeing, feeling, touching and learning about an item one wants to purchase in a bricks-and-mortar establishment, then, when one has satisfied oneself that it is the right choice, going home and buying it on-line (these days, even ordering it right there from one’s smartphone.)
I have complained about the effect of “showrooming” on small businesses in this forum before, but the person who brought it up to me approached it from a different point of view. His thought was that most shoppers are totally oblivious to the impact of their behavior, and that if they understood that they were using the resources of the shop without contributing to the overhead, they would make their purchases in the shop. The observation about the ignorance of the average shopper is too true. Although I have on occasion observed customers with notebook (or smartphone) in hand perusing my shelves, opening books to read a bit, scanning the jacket blurbs and summaries, and jotting down those titles they liked, it is more common for someone to say quite clearly, “This looks good; I’ll look for it on-line” without an inkling that I might find his plan disconcerting. And for all I know, the lady making a list of titles is preparing to drop hints for Mother’s Day, with the name of the store where they can be found included.
The shopper who brazenly declares his or her intent to buy on-line after having handled the merchandise and picked my brain for suggestions really doesn’t want to hurt my feelings (or my bottom line). There seems to be a misconception that businesses are funded by “other people” or that there is a vast reservoir of resources so that one lost sale is insignificant, that of course I expend the effort to learn what a customer likes and help them find it out of an altruistic love of helping others. I enjoy connecting readers with books; it’s the reason I do the thousand other boring things running a business entails. But I also enjoy paying my bills on time, and there is no vast reservoir behind me (or, it appears, behind Best Buy or Barnes and Noble or many other enterprises much larger than mine).
This sense that businesses have unlimited resources manifests itself in other ways. The number of charitable solicitations I receive in a week would bankrupt me if I responded to all of them. When I explain to the sweet Mom asking for a tricky-tray contribution for a fund-raiser for a high school in the next state (which, granted, is not far away) that I support these efforts in the schools in my local district but cannot give to every school in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, they seem stunned. You mean there are others asking? It’s only a few books. Yes, multiplied by approximately fifty requests at this time of year (largely from people I never see as customers in my shop). But the real problem here is lack of awareness, not a desire to drain my inventory. One small donation, one sale lost to the on-line monster: the individual sees only his little slice of the world, not the effect of numerous repetitions.
Several months after the local Borders closed (along with the rest of the company), a young man browsing in my shop commented to me that he really missed them. He said that he spent every lunch hour there, drinking coffee and reading. He had read multiple books from beginning to end without ever purchasing one. Didn’t I think that was wonderful? Maybe I should start selling coffee and create a seating area. When I said that the business model did not seem to have worked out too well, he said that he had bought a lot of coffee. He did not seem to feel that anything was wrong with his behavior, and, in reality, Borders encouraged this sense of entitlement. If it’s so easy to do, it must be OK. Someone else will buy the books to support my habit.
Bookstores are part of a community, and should be centers for community events and contributors to the life of the town. Author events and in-store reading groups are common ways of encouraging reading and the sharing of ideas. These gatherings are time consuming in planning and there are costs involved. Visiting authors also incur expenses and devote time to the process. And although we all want to encourage reading and discussion, let’s be honest, we also want to sell books. And every bookseller I know has one or more “regulars” who attend without fail, enjoy the refreshments, chat with the author, and never buy a book. Some shops have tried “ticketing,” requiring the purchase of a book in advance as the price of admission. I find this a little distasteful, and would only consider it if I expected attendance to exceed my capacity, which hasn’t happened yet. It is perfectly legitimate for a reader to listen to an author’s presentation, learn about the book, and decide it is not for them, just as it is for someone to browse for a bit and then decide there is nothing appealing that day. But one gets the sense that there are some attendees that feel the events are solely for the benefit of the audience, just like those at the library (which is supported by tax dollars), and there is nothing they need to do to keep it going. Again, I think this behavior comes from lack of awareness rather than any desire to exploit.
So, back to the conversation which initiated this long lament. The person who brought up the subject of showrooming felt also that the majority of shoppers were ignorant of the effect it has on the bookseller or other retailer. And the question was, what can be done in an educational effort? How do we overcome the assumption that someone else should be and is paying the freight so I can have all the advantages of bookshop offers, but read for free or at a discount? The inquirer drew a parallel to the pirating of movies or music, and suggested that the warnings at the beginning of a DVD could somehow be adapted to the retailers’ dilemma, that if people were aware of the effects of their behavior they would change. When the appropriate opportunity arises, I discuss the effects of showrooming, even with customers, and my efforts have yielded some changes. But there is not always a non-confrontational opportunity to have the discussion, and the one-on-one effort doesn’t have wide effect. The problem with “warning labels” is that pirating videos or music is illegal, and there are specific consequences for the offender. Showrooming is not against the law, nor is reading in a bookstore’s café or attending events. The consequences are not immediate or personal.
I do believe that while there are some who deliberately take advantage, the real problem is that the average person doesn’t think beyond their immediate needs. I do tell people that when the Big A has put us all out of business, they will charge whatever they want, and it won’t be pretty. But that’s long term, probably after I’m gone. Meanwhile, how do we educate the people whose intentions are good but who have no understanding of how it all works? If anyone has any ideas, I would love to hear them.