Is ‘showrooming’ — testing products in store to buy online — the new shopping faux pas?

Taking a picture of a product tag is often a tell-tale sign of a showroom shopper, someone who checks out merchandise in store only to buy online. Getty Images

There’s a certain type of customer Sabina Heilman has become wary of.

It’s common for people to come into a motorcycle dealer several times before making an actual purchase, said Heilman, co-owner of Toronto’s Studio Cycle. Bikes are expensive so it’s normal for customers to take a while to make up their minds, she said.

But some shoppers have a different agenda.

“You can tell by the way they interact with you,” Heilman said.

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They’ll ask to take a picture of a product’s number or take a picture of the tag. And sometimes they are upfront about it: they’re not there to buy. They’re just trying out the merchandise to figure out what they should order online — from another retailer.

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The practice has a name, “showrooming,” and it’s increasingly becoming a problem for small business owners, according to a recent survey by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).

Sixty per cent of CFIB members said they believe they’ve experienced showroom shopping. Of those, around a third said the behaviour has a significant impact on sales.

A separate poll of consumers conducted by Angus Reid for the CFIB found that 55 per cent of Canadians have showroom shopped at least once, with those between the ages of 18 and 34 most likely to do it.

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“Showrooming may seem harmless, but can really hurt independent retailers,” Ryan Mallough, director at CFIB and the lead author of the report, said in a statement.

Others, however, reject the notion that perusing in-store to buy online is a shopping faux pas.

“Often consumers aren’t trying to be sneaky,” said Lisa Orr, a certified etiquette and protocol consultant based in Toronto. “They’re trying to find the option that’s best for them.”

Even if they’ve found the right product and size, the store may not have the colour they want. There are often more options online, Orr noted.

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But even when buying online is simply a matter of getting a better price, consumers don’t need to feel guilty, she said.

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“People … have their obligations to maintain their budget, looking after their families,” Orr said. “That counts, too.”

Ultimately, she said, the responsibility of making sure a customer closes the sale falls on the retailer.

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At the same time, she added, consumers must keep in mind that using local stores only as showrooms means “you do put the showroom at risk of not being there the next time that you need them.”

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That may soon be an unwelcome surprise for some showroom shoppers at Studio Cycle. While the store is in no danger of going out of business, Heilman said she’s considering cutting down on the kind of products that tend to attract showroomers: riding gear from Canadian suppliers.

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While the store has had a “great year,” with sales up double digits in most product categories, gear sales are up just two per cent.

Items like helmets, jackets, gloves and boots are high-margin products that Studio Cycle can’t afford not to carry, Heilman said. But she’s wondering whether she shouldn’t be stocking more “exclusive products” from foreign suppliers that wouldn’t face so much competition from online retailers.

I just feel that sometimes when [people] are only looking at price point, it just doesn’t give us consideration for the type of environment and services that we are trying to provide,” she said.

For consumers, finding the right balance between getting the best deal and supporting the retailers they care about remains a challenge, according to Orr.

“For me, what I try to do is to find the balance,” she said.

For example, she makes a point of shopping locally at a few independent stores she likes to help keep in business, Orr said.

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But for kind of larger chains, if I if I feel like I can get the product elsewhere, that’s kind of that’s kind of OK, too.”

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