Unintentional showrooming

Last Updated on November 22, 2018 by Dave Farquhar

My mom asked me a few weeks ago to recommend a tablet or e-reader. She’s really only interested in reading, so that pretty much answered half the question. You can read on a tablet, of course, but when you sit down to read on one, it’s almost a guarantee you’ll end up doing more than just read a book. You’ll see that e-mail notification and you’ll check it, and next thing you know, you’re on to something else.

So… Kobo, Nook, or Kindle? For me, it was an easy decision. The Nook was the best hardware at the time, so I went with a Nook. Ve hev vays to get the books we want onto the hardware we want, but Mom doesn’t want that hassle. She just wants to be able to buy the books she wants and read them right away. Amazon’s done a hardware refresh, so their hardware is as good as any other at this point, if not a little better, and they have the largest library of books, so it was an easy decision. The newest Kindle Paper White it is.

So, the day after it came out, she went to the nearest Best Buy to buy it… and ended up ordering it from Amazon. That practice is called “showrooming,” and retailers hate it, but sometimes they shoot themselves in the foot. This was one of them.First, the display unit didn’t work. It just got stuck on the powering up screen and stayed there, forever. Well, 15 minutes at least. I’m pretty sure my Nook boots up in a minute or less. There’s no reason for a simple e-reader to take more than a minute to power up. If it takes 15 minutes to boot, something’s not right.

Then she asked if she had a choice between the ad-supported unit and the costlier unit that didn’t have ads. The salesperson thought so. OK. An affirmative answer is better, but lack of one isn’t a showstopper.

Then she asked about return policy. Best Buy has a firm policy on that–portable electronics have a 14-day return, period. Back when camcorders cost $1,000, they had a problem with people buying them, taking them on vacation, then returning them within 30 days, essentially renting them for free. So Best Buy instituted that shorter return policy, sometime in the 1990s, to end that practice.

Of course these days there aren’t a lot of consumer electronics that cost four figures, so the main thing that policy does is make Best Buy less competitive.

Mom told them that Amazon has a longer return policy if something goes wrong or she decides she doesn’t like it, and besides that, she wouldn’t have to pay sales tax.

The manager offered to eat the sales tax, but said the 14-day return policy was firm. The sales clerk said she might want to go with Amazon.

The 14-day return policy made sense in 1995–any time someone used the 30-day policy to borrow an expensive camera or camcorder, Best Buy ended up–theoretically–refunding the full purchase price and selling it as an open-box item at a discount, usually 10-15 percent. So Best Buy ended up eating $100-$150 each time it unintentionally loaned them out.

The situation is different now. Today, a $600 gadget is considered expensive. A lot of consumer gadgets sell for under $200. A fair number sell for under $100. At those price points, it’s not worth the hassle to buy it, take it on vacation, and return it afterward.

Meanwhile, Amazon offers a 30-day return policy and competitive pricing. Best Buy didn’t have to worry about Amazon in 1995. All they had to worry about were other retailers, who either had similar policies themselves, or, in the case of retailers with more generous policies, didn’t have a competitive selection.

Now, I don’t encourage showrooming. One of the reasons mail and phone order was always cheaper than retail was because they passed the savings on to you from not having the overhead of a retail store. If you want the benefit of being able to see the item in person first and talk to someone about it, it’s reasonable to expect to end up paying a little bit more. Of course, when I’m in that situation, I go to Micro Center, since the odds of finding really good help are much higher there than at Best Buy.

But, of course, when you can’t see the item working, there’s no point in putting up with a shorter return policy in exchange for not getting what you came for. Mom ended up ordering it from Amazon and having to wait a few days for it. But of course I don’t blame her.

As for that return policy, she still has a dozen or so days left, but doesn’t intend to use it. But she didn’t know that when she ordered it, so I don’t blame her for playing it safe either.

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