Going to brick-and-mortar stores, but buying online

A shopper at a Lowe's home improvement store walks by a display of artificial Christmas trees San Francisco.

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Kai Ryssdal: I'm Kai Ryssdal, with an apology to the e-shoppers among you who might be listening. I took a swipe at online gift-giving the other day. Said there's not much effort or emotion involved in just clicking and gifting. But then the weekend's retail numbers came out. Foot traffic in stores was up, but the actual sales figures didn't quite match. At the same time, online purchases rose as much as 19 percent over a year ago. So, could that all mean shoppers did take the time and energy to go to stores and finger the actual merchandise, then go home to search out a cheaper price online?

Our senior business correspondent Bob Moon has been testing the theory.


Bob Moon: I didn't have to look far to find one of these cheapskates -- just a few steps, to the office of Betsy Streisand, one of our Marketplace editors. She wanted to buy some flat screens for her new home.

Betsy Streisand: I didn't want to buy a TV without actually looking at the TV, and seeing the picture. So I went to Best Buy.

Where she apologized to the salesman for spending a half hour of his busy Black Friday learning about flat screens.

Streisand: He even pulled the little cards they give you that describe the TV, that you use to pay for it, and he made me a copy of them. And I left, I drove home, plugged in the numbers from the paper he gave me and I bought three televisions from Amazon. I was really happy I saved money, but I feel bad about it.

Britt Beamer: The number of consumers over Black Friday weekend that said that they did this was about 6.3 percent.

Britt Beamer tracks consumer behavior at America's Research Group. He says in these tight times for retailers, even such a small but growing number of "see it in person, buy it online" shoppers could mean the difference between make-or-break sales.

So why didn't salesperson Jackie Martinez sound all that concerned when I got her on the phone at an L.A.-area Best Buy store?

Jackie Martinez: We're actually flattered that, you know, people come to Best Buy to get our information. You can't get everybody, right?

Martinez says you get what you pay for: Real stores offer more services, support and the quick return of a purchase if you're not happy.

Still, there are signs that brick-and-mortar retailers are taking note of the growing competition. Industry consultant Britt Beamer points to the bargain TVs Wal-Mart offered Black Friday. Through a deal with the manufacturer of one particular model was available nowhere else.

Beamer: So Wal-Mart could have an exclusive product that could not be shopped easily, unless you could find out everything about that TV set and compare it all to specs from TV to TV, and that's very difficult to do.

But the competition might not be as cagey as shoppers like our editor Betsy.

Streisand: Probably, the other things I buy at Best Buy -- and I do buy other things at Best Buy -- I'm probably paying for the time for that salesperson to educate me in televisions which I do not buy at Best Buy.

What do you think? Which buy is best?

I'm Bob Moon for Marketplace.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.

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