Browsing was always a legitimate and useful research activity, but the emergence of the Internet has resulted in browsing developing a reputation regarded as sinister by many retailers. For years it was a benign term, describing an acceptable shopping approach. Most of us first heard the term as children, tagging along with a parent to a department store.
“Can I help you?” asked a salesperson.
“I’m just browsing,” responded my mother. I don’t recall my father ever doing any browsing. He must have done his share, but I don’t remember him ever using the term. Browsing was recognized as a likely prelude to buying, and years ago it was primarily a venture associated with women. A shopper browsed among the racks of merchandise, hoping to find an item that matched wants or needs. Sometimes the result was a sale, but not always.
Browsing was a good arrangement. Retailers welcomed browsers, the theory being that if a person was seriously interested in buying and searched the merchandise on display, chances were good that a deal would develop. In such situations the retailer made the sale and the shopper was transformed into a buyer. The participants were pleased. Then things changed.
Computer software developers adopted the term to describe programs that enabled the user to search the Internet. A browser is an invaluable tool, but the sad fact is that Internet browsing has forever changed daily life.
The retail business has been transformed. Customer loyalty to local retailers has been forgotten. Established businesses have been ruined, overwhelmed by Internet retailers with lower overhead and lower prices. But there are some products that cannot be ordered sight unseen, primarily because of concerns about style, color and fit.
To deal with such issues requires browsing. So what is the strategy adopted by many shoppers? They go to the local merchant, inspect and try on the product, using the expertise of the salesperson. They promise to return and make the purchase.
Instead, they return to home or office and place an order with an Internet retailer, at a lower price. They deceived the local store, making use of the store’s knowledge and counsel and then buying online. The result of that approach has been disastrous for small retailers. Just recently came the sad announcement that a well-respected local store selling children’s shoes was closing after 40 years. They were busy fitting the children of browsers who never returned to buy.
There are many Internet retailers, but Amazon is considered the pioneer of that business. They started with books and now sell almost everything, taking a chunk out of the sales of countless different businesses. The pattern established by Amazon and other Internet retailers has irrevocably altered retail.
I am not totally innocent. I have never gone to a store as a browser for a try-on, with the clear intent to swindle the retailer and order online. I select a model, get fitted for the proper size and then buy. But when the item needs to be replaced, I save money by ordering online. I feel guilty in that situation, but if I were to buy again from the local retailer I’d feel like a doofus to be scorned by more astute shoppers.
I bought new shoes at a store recently, after the sales clerk tried four different models until he found the proper fit. I appreciated his professional advice, paid the store price and began to wonder whether the retail world will evolve to the point where browsers will be charged a consulting fee if they don’t buy.
Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.
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