Shoppers_on_Dundas,_near_YongeI have always respected the work of my fellow bloggers at Good eReader, but a post I saw has me wondering what is in the water over there, right now. First, there was Mercy Pilkington’s failure to grasp the basic economics of product sales. And now, Michael Koslowski weights in by asserting that ‘showrooming’—aka, the practice of browsing in a store and then buying online—is ‘a genteel form of shoplifting.’*

Um, no. No, it’s not. Shoplifting is illegal. It is theft. Showrooming is commerce, a natural part of shopping. And in some ways, commerce is just the same as it has always been. Yes, there are more choices now for where to shop than their used to be. But the what and how of it has changed a lot less than people think. Multiple venues offer similar products for sale, and the customer makes their choice based on price, convenience and overall experience. If you want to make me shop at your store instead of at somebody else’s store, you have to offer me the experience I am looking for.

Some examples, from recent stories I’ve heard:

– A local coffee shop that never offered wifi caved and began to offer it. It turned out the owner’s philosophical aversion to it mattered less than her desire to earn profit. Customers voted with their wallets—they wanted the wifi plus coffee, not just the coffee alone, and if she was not going to provide it for them, they would go to a coffee shop that did.

– A local cookbook store, before they closed due to non-Amazon reasons (a rent increase and loss of foot traffic due to nearby condo construction), combatted showrooming by offering cooking classes and demonstrations. The classes and demos proved to be so popular that they wound up expanding into the storefront adjoining their previous store.

– A restaurant very local to us has always been known for its take-out pastry counter. The Beloved and I will often choose it for dinner if we have nothing left in the house for tomorrow’s breakfast. This pastry counter has won this restaurant numerous visits for meals we might just as well have eaten elsewhere.

All of this goes to show you that price alone is not the sole consideration. The Beloved and I rack up $5-8 per pastry counter visit. If price alone were the sole consideration, wouldn’t we be better served by just planning our grocery shopping more efficiently? Clearly, we would be. I can take or leave the breakfast pastries most of the time; I am happy with toast and peanut butter if all else fails. But the Beloved really likes a nice, fresh scone. He is willing to pay a premium to get a good one.

And I am sure, conversely, that there are many others who go there just for the restaurant part and eschew the pastry counter. My mother is one of them. I don’t think she has ever bought a pastry for breakfast in her life. Is she ‘showrooming’ by walking past that pastry counter—maybe even stopping for just a second to look and admire—without buying a thing? If she sees the big, unhealthy muffins on her way out the door and feels inspired to go home and make her own diet-friendly ones, is she committing a ‘genteel form of shoplifting’?

The problem is that too many people still seem to view books as some sort of special snowflake thing, and so they ascribe a moral outrage to things which would otherwise be just business. If a brick-and-mortar store—book or otherwise—wants me to shop there instead of somewhere else, and they truly cannot or will not compete on price alone, then they need to find some other attribute of the shopping experience in which they can compete. That’s true for books. It’s true for groceries, or art supplies or watches or computers or telephones. It’s just retail. That’s all it is.

* The actual phrase from Michael, at the end of his May 19 post, was “a gentile form of shoplifting.” But rather than gentile, he apparently meant “genteel,” if we go by the quote’s original source, author David Nicholls. The quote in the first paragraph of the current TeleRead post gives Michael the benefit of the doubt. No big deal. We all make typos. Partial screenshot below is from Michael’s post.

GoodEtypoScreenshot - 5_31_2015 , 11_41_10 AM

Related: Nate’s take on the showrooming issue. And his follow-up in the TeleRead comments area.

Credit for photo at top of page: Ian Mutto. Alone Together (shoppers at Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto, Canada, in December 2009). Creative Commons.


  1. I always assume those silly posts at Good eReader are simply their form of clickbaiting. See also the rants on how self publishing heralds the end of times. Usually the posts over there are lucky to get any comments, but the nonsense ones tend to rack up quite a few.

  2. I think the whole idea that there’s anything wrong with browsing bookstores and buying online is inherently silly and that you and other bloggers, for or against this notion, are giving it more attention than it deserves. By treating this as a topic of debate you give it credibility.

    Someone made a hyperbolic statement. So what! Why are you taking it seriously!


  3. The thing that really steams bookstore owners is that people will come in and use the store employees to recommend and find books, THEN these people will buy the book at Amazon in front of them. It might not be shoplifting, but it is an expensive waste of employee time as well as being utter jerkdom behavior.

  4. I have been browsing stores and comparing the prices for ages before the advent of the on-line shopping. Was that an equivalent to shoplifting?
    Many large stores put up loss-leaders for sale so that they are able to attract shoppers in hope that when shopper comes in for the item that is on sale [s]he will also make other purchases.
    Showrooming takes me to the store I wouldn’t normally visit. Where is the harm. While I am in store I might notice things I might want to [impulse] buy.

  5. I refuse to give Koslowski the traffic so I’m not going to see his arguments but for many years this was known as comparison shopping and used for everything from groceries to books to washing machines to cars and everything in between.

    The nice thing is that now you can check reviews almost instantaneously. I haven’t had a local bookstore in more than 15 years and only buy digitally now so I’ve never even thought to do it with a book but you had better believe I’m going to check the reviews on that weed eater I’m looking at in my local store before I purchase it. If the store owner wants to accuse me of “shoplifting” for doing so, that’s just one way to lose my business. Never mind that I’m already in the store and want to make a purchase. I’ll just leave.

  6. A lot of stores, such as Best Buy and Fry’s, are matching online prices. So “showrooming” becomes the wisest course of action if you want to make sure you’re getting the lowest price while still walking out of the store with the item in your hot little hands. Amazon Flow FTW.

  7. I’m not sure what to call it but there are times when showrooming is “wrong.” For example, I needed to purchase a bark collar my excessively vocal hound dog. I went into a pet store and talked to a dog trainer about the best options for my dog for about twenty minutes. I purchased a bark collar based on her recommendations. I could have easily said I’d think about it, then gone home to buy the collar for less at Amazon. That would have been wrong. Her advice and knowledge was worth something to me, so I paid the higher price to get it from her store.

    Of course, I could have paid an independent dog trainer a twenty minute consulting free, then bought from Amazon. So maybe booksellers should charge a $5.00 consultant charge for recommendation – which can be applied to books bought from her store.

  8. It’s hardly shoplifting; the store still has the goods after you leave. I can see the argument that it’s a kind of theft in a moral or ethical sense if you’re asking store employees for help and thus preventing them from helping customers who *would* actually buy in the store. But that’s different from browsing a shelf of books, seeing what looks interesting, deciding that a given book costs more than you’re willing to spend, and picking up the book later online or in a used book store or at the library. (Is it still considered showrooming if instead of taking out your phone and navigating to Amazon, you take out your phone and navigate to the public library’s online catalog and put in a hold request?)

    This discussion happens in the knitting/crochet community as well — whether it’s ethical to go to a local yarn shop, examine colors and touch the yarn, and then go order the yarn from an online store that sells it cheaper even after shipping. (General agreement seems to be that 1. there’s no moral obligation to buy the yarn in the store where you first see it, and 2. that said, if you like having the LYS, you should try to spend *some* money there.)

  9. When I first retired I was living in Houston, a city full of book stores. I had time on my hands and a car then so I spent a lot of days in Borders and B&N buying their coffee and reading their books in the comfy chairs they provided. Of course this was long before ebooks became a threat to book stores.

    It’s not that I didn’t buy books. I did. Quite a few, in fact. I bought some from the stores I spent my time in and I bought them in used book stores.

    It never occurred to me to wonder if I was doing something wrong. I was using the facilities these stores offered freely. I was a long time customer of both book chains, although not necessarily of the store I was in. I bought coffee. I felt fine about it.

    Little by little some of the employees got to know me and I’m sure they must have figured out what I was doing. No-one ever said anything about it. I was always greeted with a smile. I was always treated with courtesy.

    I think the difference now is that book stores are threatened. It’s not showrooming that threatens them but it is online buying. This is kind of flaunting it; doing what’s hurting them with them possibly watching. I think it could be said to be rude but I see no other moral issues with it.

    A more polite way might be to buy the book online when you leave the store. And yes, I know that sounds sneaky but it’s just to be courteous. Any customer has every right to pick his vendor.

    It might also be pretty rude to do that if you take up the clerk’s time. I’ve never asked book store employees for suggestions or opinions. At most I might ask them to point me to the fiction, although even that was usually pretty obvious.

    I think if I did discuss a book with a clerk and they help me decide to buy it I’d feel honor bound to buy it there. But I wonder how many people really do get help from book store clerks.


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