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‘Webrooming’ shoppers research online, then buy in stores

Shoppers at a Target store on Thanksgiving night in Wheeling, Ill.
Shoppers at a Target store on Thanksgiving night in Wheeling, Ill.JASON SZENES/EPA

Retailers hate it when customers whip out their smartphones in the middle of a store, check the Internet to match an item right in front of them, then buy it online at a better price — the common practice known as “showrooming.”

But several new retail business studies suggest shoppers are more likely to turn the familiar showrooming tactic upside down around the holidays. They found that “webrooming” — the process of looking at a product online and then buying later at a store — is actually the more popular way to shop.

“I usually go online to check prices and narrow down what I want to get,” said Kameko Lindsay, a 21-year-old nursing student at Northeastern University. “Then I go to the store and see what I can find. For me, I’d rather touch things before I buy.”

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Surveys from the consulting firms Deloitte and Accenture both indicate Lindsay’s shopping behavior is common. The Deloitte research found that nearly 70 percent of shoppers webroom compared with less than 50 percent who showroom before they buy.

Amazon.com, long considered the traditional brick-and-mortar store’s No. 1 enemy, is indeed the top site where showroomers go to buy. But it’s an even more popular research tool for webroomers, according to a study earlier this year from BI Intelligence, a research service from the online news website Business Insider.

Another survey from the International Council of Shopping Centers also suggests that retailers should stop frowning when customers pull out their smartphones. Six of every 10 people who use the Internet to research items on the spot ultimately buy in the store, that survey found.

The Accenture study highlights the reasons customers webroom: to know if a product is in stock at a store before they go, to touch and see the product, to avoid shipping costs, and to ask stores to match the best online price. Shoppers also cite an age-old retail impulse — instant gratification.

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Fernanda Brito of Malden said that earlier this week she browsed at several websites — DSW, Lord & Taylor, and Macy’s — in search of a pair of black boots. She found a pair she liked at DSW and went into the store to check them out.

Shoppers inside a Toys R Us store in New York’s Times Square.
Shoppers inside a Toys R Us store in New York’s Times Square.JOHN TAGGART/EPA/EPA

“I wanted to get boots to wear on Thanksgiving and I didn’t have 10 days for shipping,” she said. “It’s also good to be mobile and get out into the stores.”

The shopping center council has also found that millennials, the Web-savvy generation that marketers struggle to connect with, are more likely to webroom than any other age group. Millennials cited the get-it-now factor as one of their top reasons for webrooming.

“Before they walk in, they’re being smart and doing the research, reading the reviews, and making that decision in the store,” said Kate Ferrara, principal and New England retail leader at Deloitte.

Ferrara said stores are responsible, at least in part, for the webrooming boom as they continue to adapt to the business challenge of the Web.

“We’re seeing more and more retailers doing things like price-matching and trying to be more competitive with the Internet,” she said. For example, Walmart has introduced a policy that its stores will price-match online retailers for the first time this holiday season.

Retailers’ strategies continue to evolve, as they try to keep up with the different ways people shop. Many have recently developed “omnichannels” as part of strategies to hold onto customers by creating a more seamless experience between mobile, online, and in-store shopping.

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Now, many companies funnel people from their websites to stores with options like free in-store pickup. Some offer coupons that pop up on mobile applications when you walk into a store. Others, such as Staples Inc., place kiosks in stores to help customers buy online when items aren’t available on-site. Most retailers also connect to shoppers on social media.

“If you can’t beat them, you have to join them,” said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. “You have to be online. You need a website. You need to be compatible with mobile marketing.”

And some items are just easier to purchase in a store. People often want to try on shoes or clothing, study the picture quality of a television, or play around with a few different tablets and laptops before they settle on something.

Marshal Cohen, a chief retail analyst with the NPD Group of New York, said many customers head to stores after browsing online because there’s an emotional side to shopping for Christmas presents.

“The 40-plus crowd loves to shop in the store because they think it makes them feel like they spent time and energy on the gift,” he said. “Many shoppers would rather go into the stores, because it’s more fun and there’s more excitement around the holidays.”


Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TarynLuna.

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