Booksellers should embrace showrooming

Showrooming has become the bane of every bookseller’s life, to the point where HarperCollins c.e.o. Victoria Barnsley recently suggested that bookshops could charge for entry to put showroomers off. That idea was met with the appropriate degree of chilliness, but while trying to turn bookshops into exclusive book clubs is perhaps unrealistic, it’s also untenable to sit back and do nothing. 

Market research carried out by TNS has shown that of 38,000 people surveyed across 43 countries, one third visit shops to size up a purchase before buying elsewhere. In North America, 60% of people showroom, while in Europe 54% do it. In both regions, a little over half of showroomers use their mobile phone while doing so.

Although the research doesn’t split consumers out by sector, I’d be surprised if the numbers for books weren’t higher than average, not least because Amazon actively encourages its customers to showroom. The Amazon app includes a barcode scanner so that readers can compare prices and place an order, right there and then. Sure, they’ll have to wait a few days for their book to show up, but they’ll enjoy immediately that warm glow of satisfaction at a few quid saved as they walk empty-handed from the store. 

MarketingWeek makes the point that showrooming is, however, an opportunity as much as it is a threat:

"If two thirds of showroomers are using mobile devices while in-store, then that means retailers can directly target those shoppers when they are in shopping mode with things like coupons or offers to incentivise a purchase with them not a rival."

Waterstones has an app, for example, but it doesn’t include a barcode scanner. If I’m at a friend’s house and spot a book I like, I’ve got to search for it the old-fashioned way. Sure, that works, but a barcode scanner is both easier and more fun (or maybe that’s just me being easily pleased). But what about in-store? If I’m in a shop and I spot a book, why would I then want to buy it on that store’s website? This is where retailers can be inventive with their offers and messaging: 

  • Don’t want to carry heavy books round all day? Buy from your phone while in store and have them delivered! 
  • Want loyalty rewards? Come to our store and buy via your phone! 
  • Want special geo-located deals? Get money off when you visit your ‘home’ store!  

Add a QR code scanner to the app and suddenly you open up even more opportunities to innovate. Each store can have its own unique QR code which not only takes the reader to the store’s website but could also count towards geo-located loyalty rewards such as: ‘visit five stores and get a discount’. QR codes positioned next to key books could link to staff reviews, to help buyers make up their mind. Some bookstores already do this longform on the shelf edge, but a web page has room for a more nuanced opinion. 

Now add events like signings, readings or book club meetings into the mix and you’ve got even more opportunities to connect with readers and build a relationship that means they buy from you, not your competitors. QR codes allow you to encode any information, not just web addresses, so they can be used to encode event details too. Many QR readers can interpret properly formatted event data and will offer to add that event to your calendar. That’s easier and cheaper than printing out flyers and, done right, much more easily shared between friends. 

But what about independent bookstores? Well, it might take a bit of collaboration, but there’s no reason that they couldn’t create their own app to helps customers get the most out of their visit. Even without a ‘buy online’ option, there are still a lot of opportunities to build relationships and loyalty. 

Ultimately, people don’t showroom to be spiteful, they do it because it’s an easy way for them to get a better deal. Put another way, showrooming is a market signal that buyers find bookstores useful, but not good value for money. That’s actually good news, it means buyers can be wooed back from your online competitors given the right tactics, technology and rewards. Indeed, showrooming may be the biggest opportunity facing booksellers today. 


Suw Charman-Anderson is a social technologist, journalist and booklover



Paid-For Showrooming Is Madness

markjtuban's picture

At the moment, physical book retailers are struggling to keep their heads above water with many predicting that few book shops will exist within a generation. And there must be nothing more frustrating for them than watching people come in the door, browse for books, and then leave to buy cheaper (online).

Well, that's the market for you.

To avert loss of revenues, some commentators have suggested that retailers ought to charge people for the privilege of coming into their shops to browse - but I would suggest that if retailers do that, then they risk committing commercial suicide.

Alienating the very people who buy from you is not a good way to stay in business.

In fact, it is akin to retailers actually punishing their own consumers for having the temerity to not shop how retailers want to them to. Show-rooming online and offline is a fact of life - and retailers need to get over it. Charging consumers for the privilege could sever whatever last hold physical retailers have on them and actually incentivise people not to shop with them.

No, rather than punish consumers for acting differently, retailers should consider new ways to engage with them.

Someone once said: "in times of change build not windbreaks but windmills."

In that spirit, a good first step would be for retailers to really reconsider what the fundamentals of their business model really are.

I would suggest three things:
1. Consumers want what they want at the best deal - and everything a retailer does should be driven by the consumer.
2. Players like Amazon ad Apple have generated a paradigm-shift in how people search and shop that the physical retailers haven't begun to address.
3. If physical retailers want to survive the next two decades in any significant numbers (or even at all), then they need to embrace the paradigm shift and start giving consumers what they want.

At the end of the day, consumers are not a mystery wrapped in an enigma. They're people just like you and me.

The bottom line is simple - consumers want a good deal, but there are circumstances in which they are prepared to pay a premium for something if they feel we are getting something else. The convenience of 'buy it and have it now' clearly isn't enough as retailers are finding to their cost.

What that value-add element really is, is something that retailers have to find out as a matter of urgency if they want to survive. But it will only come by working with consumers rather than against them.


The last time I visited Foyles in Charing Cross Road there were notices everywhere banning the 'photographing' of books.

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