7 Ways to Fight Online Retailers

Competing with Amazon.com


Best Buy is planning on shrinking the size of their stores while Barnes and Noble has announced the shuttering of as many as 1/3 of their locations. Clearly, big online sellers such as Amazon.com are eating away at traditional brick and mortar retail sales. To add insult to injury, consumers often visit neigborhood retail stores to make their selections and then purchase from competing online retailers – sometimes while still inside the brick-and-mortar store. This practice has become known as showrooming. How can physical retail stores compete with the low overhead online behemoths?

Best BuyBarnes and Noble


1. Acquire and train competent salespeople. One reason customers choose brick-and-mortar stores over Amazon.com is that they want to be able to talk to someone. Unfortunately, cost-cutting to compete with online pricing has led to less sales help which in turn results in a disappointing retail experience, driving buyers to more online purchases. It's a vicious cycle.

However, according to a recent article in Forbes, Best Buy's new management is spending “to better equip and train its salesforce—the human element of Best Buy is one of the only factors that help separate it from rival e-commerce businesses like Amazon.com and eBay.” It makes sense. If a competitive advantage of physical retail stores is their ability to provide sales assistance, it makes no sense for management to cut salespeople in the hope this would make them more competitive.

2. Make technology and the internet your friend. Best Buy is encouraging showrooming at its own bestbuy.com by offering instant savings coupons and online ordering while shoppers are in the store. Other brick-and-mortar retailers are investing in their websites and encouraging their salepeople and customers to utilize their online catalog even while in the store. Salespeople can be equipped with tablets and smartphones to ring up transactions on the spot rather than at an order desk or cashier.

3. Exploit Amazon.com's biggest weakness. What can buyers get immediately at a physical store that they cannot get immediately from Amazon.com? The product itself. For centuries, commerce at its most basic has meant buyers making exchanges with sellers. The buyer trades her money for a seller's product. The exchange is instant, as is the reward on both sides. But waiting for the UPS driver to bring your latest electronic gadget is hardly instant. The satisfaction from the transaction is delayed if not lost entirely. Well-stocked brick-and-mortar retailers will let shoppers know that they can be using their purchases in a matter of minutes.

4. Engage the senses. Potential buyers need to smell the candles that are for sale. They need to feel the digital camera in their hands. They need to see the difference that a retina screen makes. The six senses cannot be experienced online. Yet, too often shop owners keep their candles wrapped in cellophane, their cameras locked away behind glass doors, and computers stacked up in boxes.

5. Provide exceptional experiences. The temptation to cut back on the frills in order to compete with internet prices is great. However, expanding on those frills and turning them into rich consumer experiences can separate a retailer from her “price only” online competitor. When a customer buys a new range online, a truck shows up at her house, and drops a big box in the driveway. She's on her own. However, suppose she buys that same range from a local appliance dealer. His truck shows up with a driver who uninstalls the old range, unboxes, and installs the new range, tests it to make sure that it is working, explains the basic operation, then puts the old range on his truck to take it to the recycling center. Later, the customer goes back to the retailer to purchase some accessories, and signs-up for a 6 session convection cooking school. It's a great consumer experience, and can't be matched by an online retailer.

6. Sell to the market segment of one. – Amazon.com and Starbucks are masters at the art of personalization. Based on your buying history, and their computer algorithms, Amazon.com can recommend a unique list of books suited to you alone. When you go to Denny's for a cup of coffee there is only regular and decaf, but at Starbucks as people line up to place their orders, it seems that no two orders are the same. Each cup of coffee is customized for the buyer. To fight showrooming and improve profits, today's brick and mortar retailers must tailor buying experiences to suit the buyer.

7. Learn to cross-merchandise. An appliance retailer selling hi-tech induction cooktops decided not to send customers to a department store for the cookware needed for induction cooking, but instead added cookware to his own product lineup. The results were add-on sales of high margin cookware, and more satisfied customers.

I've used some examples from the appliance industry because of my background there. Can you think of other examples of successfully fighting showrooming and competing with online retailers?


-Art Johnson


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2 Responses to 7 Ways to Fight Online Retailers

  1. Warren Mann says:

    Seems to me the best tactic to counter “showrooming” was missed – better merchandising. Retailers should feature a selection of product:

    – supplied by vendors who do not sell through the Internet
    – models not available on-line
    – freight inefficient product too large or too fragile to ship
    – from vendors who use unilateral pricing

    The meek merchant who assumes that despite having sales personnel on the floor the brands carried must be the same ones offered at WalMart, Home Depot, or Best Buy will likely be ground to dust by insufficient margins. A dealer’s power remains in the art of purchasing. Select goods from suppliers who value their brand enough to keep it from being trashed by Internet sellers, manufacturers who appreciate your channel of distribution.

    Often these will be start-up labels. They have no budget for advertising and will rely on your selling floor to carry the message to consumers. Look for Asian OEM companies at trade shows who produce now for Samsung, Electrolux, or Sony. Alternately, find the 19′ top mount refrigerator not shown on websites, or the 44″ LCD, or the talking GPS. Oddities may have only spot customer acceptance, but you capture 100% of the 10% market if only your store provides the product. Radio Shack has been profitable for years stocking the oddball items.

    Key point: don’t underestimate your power. Vendors rarely make money with models inherently unprofitable to retailers. Categories and sub-lines that produce black ink on the bottom line for retailers do the same for manufacturers; razon thin margins at retail usually produce razor-thin margins back at the home office.

    Savvy marketing people know this. If you find a pearl in the sludgy, murky bottom of their product offerings that makes money for you, it will for them, too. Eventually the pendulum will swing back from the profitless prosperity of selling lots of boxes to a more rational view watching out for profit. You just need to remain in business until those days of rapture re-appear. Merchandising for clean lines/models represents a pathway.

    • Art Johnson says:

      Well said, Warren. Spoken by someone who is a master of the art of merchandising. Merchandising isn’t inherently a competitive advantage – even online retailers can merchandise, but you highlight some winning tactics that I didn’t cover. THANKS for your comments.

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