Sunday, July 07, 2013

Comparison pricing doesn't always mean leaving the store

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a column about how useful smartphone apps were to compare prices of goods when you were shopping. I concluded that there was nothing wrong with perusing an item somewhere and then shopping around for the best price.

Enough readers took issue with my conclusion that it seemed good to revisit the issue.

A veteran bookseller commented about how frustrating it is to work hard to offer a "better than expected experience" to her customers only to have them purchase the books she recommends online. "It is disheartening to work so hard only to have the store used as a showroom for online purchases."

Keith Bouldin, a reader from Santa Rosa, Calif., commented that "if you want bricks and mortar stores to be around to look at and try on products before you buy, then you need to buy things from them." Besides, he says, he finds the idea of buying wearable items online problematic if you expect to get the correct fit. So he buys his motorcycle helmets and gear from a local shop.

"There really is no substitute for hands-on personal service that you get at a bricks and mortar store, and the prices need to reflect that," writes Bouldin.

"If you value the services that the retailer provides and want to see them continue, then reward them with the sale, even if you end up paying a bit more," agrees William Jacobson of Anaheim, Calif. "After all, you have gotten more for your money." And, he points out, these retailers pay for rent, utilities, insurance, labor and inventory, all of which are designed to be repaid through sales.

But other customers who want to be loyal to their bricks and mortar stores sometimes find the price differential for the same product to be too great. A reader who regularly shopped the same auto parts store noted that a tie rod end he needed cost $49 at his regular store, while the same one cost $7 online. Another local shop sold it for $21. Since the reader didn't want to wait for it to be shipped, he bought the $21 rather than stay with his regular supplier. Even when you want to be loyal, "things are not always easy."

Chris MacDonald, a reader from Toronto who writes about and teaches business ethics, commented that "lots of information basically means that the market can be truly competitive, and that sellers aren't relying on customer ignorance."

MacDonald makes an excellent point. In my original column, I did not argue that we should never pay a little extra for the service and quicker availability we might receive at a bricks and mortar shop. I agree with Jacobson who argues that "good faith" from both the seller and buyer is essential, if we don't want our favorite local stores to close shop.

But being able to shop around and compare is, I still maintain, a good thing and it's the right thing for consumers to take advantage of comparison pricing apps that allow them to do this.

It's also great to see some independent retailers creatively compete with the trend. On a recent visit to the Strand Book Store in New York City, a table featured several physical books with a sign that read: "Lower Priced than E-books." We picked up a bag full.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of  The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apartis a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin

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(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


doreen said...

I don't think there is anything wrong with looking at an item in a store and then shopping around for the best price,whether it is with a smartphone app, checking on line later or physically going to different stores to check the price,

What I do see as an ethical problem is using brick and mortar stores for the services they provide (fitting rooms, the knowledge of salespeople, etc) and then buying from someplace that is less expensive in part because those services aren't provided.

Jeff Scism said...

The Market place is evolving away from Brick and Mortar stores. Look at LARGE retailers like Barnes and Noble. Books were the mainstay of their business and book sales took a steep dive, they are evolving to focus on electronic book sales. The Internet is the brick and mortar store of the dawning era. Less labor intensive, and faster and easier to shop. The savings get passed to the consumer, at the cost of having to wait for delivery. Brick and mortar stores provide convenience and fill the need for "gotta have it NOW", but for the customer who can wait a few days, it is MUCH more economical to shop on-line.There are tough economies in the mix, and unless a brick and mortar store can develop an interface with the internet, they will suffer the decreased sales and loss of their business. Supply and demand. If you find you can not compete under your present model, adapt.

Anonymous said...

Without disagreeing too much, the latest "gadgets" such as smartphones should be used to take advantage of that kind of technology. The "brick and mortar" places didn't lose marketshare because of smartphones and the smartphone people aren't taking over. Every method is part of the "marketplace". The left wants to "manage" things by putting down one method over another. Competition is good.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

AzaleaLover said...

Of course it's unethical to use brick-and-mortar stores as showrooms to look at merchandise and then buy from online suppliers. The B & M stores have the huge expenses of attractive displays plus knowledgeable sales reps and/or knowledgeable designers to help the "customer".

That this common practice is unethical won't stop it......but just because many people do it doesn't make it right.