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.


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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You just had an employee on that bought 3 TVs this weekend from Amazon. THREE TVs???? Perhaps this is why we're having climate problems. Excess. Excess. Excess. I don't even own a TV.

Betsy Streisand said that she felt badly about buying online after pumping a local salesman for a half-hour's free consultation. She should. I have owned a shop since the 1980s, and have so far successfully survived the Big Box stores, the local competition, and the recession. However, college students come in armed with IPhones in order to photograph my merchandise and price check it against similar goods online while looking up at me occasionally to ask a few more questions before leaving to order the same item on Amazon. They don't seem to care that Jeff Bezos does not need their business like a little mom-and-pop does. But, they might miss us if one day we can't afford to stay open and they have to shop online and only guess which ironic plush animal hat will help them score the most hipster points without trying it on first.

I was very glad to read so many comments on this story that saw the unfairness of using Brick & Mortar stores as showrooms for Amazon. Bob Moon's attempt to apologize and justify what Betsy Streisand did and so many other Amazon customers also do misses some critical points.

Bob Moon's said that Betsy did apologize to the salesman. How about apologizing to the Best Buy investors that saw their capital used to build the store and load it with inventory so that Betsy could see and touch a product before spending her money. How about apologizing to the Best Buy investors that saw their earnings being reduced as they paid salaries and payroll taxes for the salesman who told Betsy it was ok, he was on commission. How about apologizing to the states that don't get the sales tax on the purchases by Betsy and the rest of the Amazon customers.

Meanwhile, Best Buy is trading at a PE of 13, while Amazon is trading at a PE of 70, which has put Jeff Bezos in the top 20 richest Americans!

People, don't be so sensitive. I work on commission and if I allow someone to talk to me without buying for that long...shame on me. As all good salespeople know, I need to control the conversation and I need to ask for the sale at every chance. If I am not getting anywhere and I continue to simply educate a customer without making the sale, it's on me. As soon as 15 minutes passes and the customer is not "biting" I stop answering questions. That's business.

You missed the single largest issue in all this (although Greg C does mention it). SALES TAX! I am sure Betsy S-T-R-E-I-S-A-N-D (got that Sacramento?) will report and pay her sales taxes on these purchases come April 15th as she legally has to. THREE TVS? Let's say $1500, that will be northward of $150. Why are our states broke? You're working down the hall from why.

I think it's disgraceful. These people work with the "difficult" public for starters. Get paid nothing. Their employers pay for them to be knowledgable about what they sell and you are completely taking advantage of them. There will be no brick and mortar if this behaviour is condoned. People will lose their jobs and the retail experience will be changed forever. Disgraceful, disrespectful and just wrong. These businesses and employee's spend time and money to service the public. They PAY for your luxury. Cybersites have little to no overhead. How can you even laugh about disrespecting someones livelyhood?

I too feel it is unethical to deliberately waste a salespersons time knowing full well you do not intend to buy the items in question at the store you are visiting. @Greg - As someone who has been and worked for many small retailers and have spent many many hours helping folk who have used my time for their own selfish ends I can say that MBA or no it doesn't take a genius to know that the price an online outfit be it Amazon or anyone else can offer varies greatly over the price a place which has a much different overhead/margin ratio like brick & mortar stores do. Do you have to buy at the brick & mortar store? No of course not, but don't deliberately go in and waste peoples time either. The owner had to pay that person a salary with no sales to make up for the time lost, or the salesperson may have lost several sales opportunities if they earn comission. Wherever it is you work, would you or your boss appreciate it if someone regularly made a habit of taking 30 minutes out of your workday just to waste time but still had to pay you for it? I seriously doubt it, what makes this any better?

I agree with a lot of the comments. What I do is this: I do my "homework", research on-line and in the stores...I usually know what I am shopping for anyway (I'm an "older" male), but I educate myself. I find the best price that I can on-line, from dealers that I feel are reliable and that I can trust. I see who has the item in stock, and who just drop-ships, and who ships for free to me. Then I go to the local stores, small "mom 'n' pop"s and the "two store, three store" local "chains" (if you can call them that), and see what their prices are. If their prices are even close to the on-line price, I buy "local"; if they are way over, I ask them if they'll "compete" with on-line or "big-box" stores. They will often "talk" at this point. If in the end the "local" price is, say, 10 or 15% over the "best price", I'll usually buy "local". If not, I'll often try the same thing at the "big box" stores, BUT ONLY if they have what I want IN STOCK. Otherwise, I buy on-line. The problem is, I'd much rather keep my money in the local economy...the job I save may be my own, or my friend's...but when the price is 25%, 50% more than on-line, it gets to be a very tough sell. I'm trying to be pragmatic, too...and not broke!

I think this kind of shopping will spur on a new kind of shopping paradyme; I think local stores will start to say "OK, if we don't have it in stock, we'll get it for you at (say) 5% over our cost"...and they will cut their "in stock" prices, too, rather than waiting for the "sale" opertunity. People will almost always pay a little more for instant gratification, as well as a little more for having an interaction with a real live human being right in front of them...as long as it is not annoying!

It's my own "sin of omission" in reporting this story (and trying to beat the clock) to not have included this important detail: In all fairness to Betsy, when she apologized to the salesman for taking his time, he told her not to worry -- that he didn't work on commission, but was paid by the hour and happy to be helpful. Certainly the good impression left by this would make a strong impression on any future buying decisions I might make. Also, Betsy tells me she did ask if Best Buy would match online prices, and that she was prepared to make her purchase at the store if they did. She was told that the store's policy is to match only prices on in-stock items from other local brick-and-mortar stores. Thanks to all of you for your comments here!

thats as bad as going to a newstand and reading half of the newspapers featured stories without buying the paper then going home and reading the rest online for free, journalists the world over are losing employment due to newspapers closing down and one of their own thinks its OK to buy cheap online.


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