Showrooming vs. Webrooming: New trends in customer engagement


By J. N. Halm

One of the most interesting aspects of living in a world that is virtually being run by technology is the new terms that pop up now and then. With each idea, concept, or practice comes a new name. With each new gadget comes a different terminology, a term that becomes a household in no time. In the past few years, words like tweeting, face-timing, Facebooking, etc. have all become a part of our daily lexicon. In the last decade, two other terms have become very important to our understanding of how consumers operate these days.

It is a known fact that customers sometimes make purchases on a whim. They see. They like. They buy. This is what is referred to as Impulse (or impulsive buying). Often attributed to psychological factors that are triggered on the spur of the moment, impulse buying is impulsive, uncontrollable, and influenced by moods like anger and happiness. The items that fall into the impulse buying category are mostly those that are not too expensive or whose consequences are mostly not too dire. Although the ultra-rich can sometimes buy items on impulse that the average person would have to save for a lifetime to buy.

However, by and large, customers would normally start a purchase by first researching the item. This is when customers seek more knowledge on the item to ensure that they make the best decision. Customers would want to know the various vendors merchandising the item, the comparative costs, and the ease of availability of the item, or even the various colours, shapes, sizes, or other varieties available.

It is important to note that the research phase can be done in two different ways. The customer can sit behind a computer and do all the research online. This can be done easily via a smartphone as well. There is a report that asserted that more than 80% of customers say they consult their phones on purchases they are about to make in a store. Some of these checks by customers are done on the spot, right before the decision is made on whether to go ahead with the purchase or to walk away. Some businesses even encourage their customers to adopt the online approach to investigate potential purchases by providing customers with mobile applications.

The older and more traditional way of finding out any information on a potential purchase was via physical examination. If the product is such that it can be inspected before purchase, the customer can visit wherever the product is and then have a look at it in person. If the product can be tested or tried, the customer might even do that. Sometimes, just a simple window shopping might suffice.

It is when the customer is very satisfied and very confident with, all the information gathered that the customer will move on to the next phase of the purchase. This is when the customer exchanges his or her money for the product, item, service, or experience. With purchases, the customer can either go to a physical outlet or, as is common these days, make the purchase online.

The ongoing discussion means that customers will have a number of options when they want to make purchases. For instance, a customer can resort to online research followed by an online purchase. Alternatively, physical (or offline) research followed by a physical purchase can also be adopted. These two are pretty straightforward.

As a result of shifting customer shopping habits, there are however those instances when a customer will do research online but will prefer to purchase offline or in-person. This practice goes by several names. Research online, purchase offline (ROPO), or research online, buy offline (ROBO). Others also refer to this as an online-to-store approach.

However, a more interesting name by which this is known is Webrooming. This is because the website becomes the showroom of the customer. Just as people will go to view items in a showroom, the customer will browse through the Web to get as much information as possible about the intended purchase. When the customer is satisfied that the purchase has to go ahead, he or she will then visit a brick-and-mortar outlet to purchase the product.

Interestingly, the opposite of Webrooming is Showrooming. This is the practice whereby the customer does the research physically, i.e. by visiting the showroom. The customer might even try the item, if permitted, just to be convinced about its quality. However, when the customer is confident in going ahead with the purchase, he or she would rather do so online.

As determined from the definitions above, the customer’s choice of which of these shopping practices to go for would be determined by several factors. For instance, the ease of visiting a particular retail outlet could be a key determinant as to which option to choose. In our part of the world, where there are still some challenges with internet access as well as a lack of a very well-established e-commerce industry, neither webrooming nor showrooming might be a popular choice. In such a case, most shopping will be done with offline research and offline purchases.

However, for those customers with the means to access reviews and other vital pieces of information online and also with a well-established e-commerce industry, webrooming and showrooming are still very valid options. It is therefore of no surprise that these practices have become quite commonplace, with figures to prove that both are being done in almost equal measure.

It has been found that one of the key reasons why customers will want to resort to webrooming is because of mistrust. Not being too sure of the quality of what they want to buy, customers would first want to visit a showroom to be certain that the product is available. Visiting the premises in person also helps the customer determine that the quality is as expected.

In a May 2022 study published in the Asian Marketing Journal, researchers found that when customers come across negative reviews while researching an intended purchase, they tend to go into the physical outlet to check things out for themselves. The title of the study was titled “I Can’t Believe Online: A Study on How Negative Reviews Move Online Shoppers to the Offline Channel”. The need for businesses to be above suspicion therefore becomes very important if they are to earn the trust of today’s customers.

It is also very important that businesses, especially those in the retail space, constantly monitor their social media pages to ensure that negative or unsavoury comments and reviews are responded to. Although it is almost impossible to win over individuals on the Net who are bent on mischief, it helps if the business responds to negative reviews with its side of the story. This will ensure that potential customers are not put into a state of apprehension by the negative reviews they come across.

One other reason why some customers might prefer showrooming is because of cost. With fewer overheads, businesses that operate strictly online can sell items at lower cost compared to competitors who operate brick-and-mortar outlets. Therefore, customers would visit the store to inspect the product and to ask all the relevant questions. However, when they decide to finally make the purchase, they will prefer to do so via an online vendor.

One thing that both webrooming and showrooming have in common is that it involves customers coming into a physical store or place of business. Customers coming into a physical space is always of great importance to customer experience and should be an opportunity that all businesses should not take for granted. We live in an era where customers are being urged to resort to increased use of technology to minimise physical person-to-person interactions. This is why it is important that when customers engage with business professionals, those interactions are necessarily of the highest quality available. Businesses must pull out the red carpet when customers physically visit the place of business.

For businesses, the advent of showrooming and webrooming has serious implications. First of all, it is critical that in their communications with customers, businesses must appeal to both types of customers. Copy for advertisements and other external business communication messages must acknowledge that there are webroomers and showroomers. Businesses must communicate their understanding of the new ways of shopping to be able to appeal to these classes of customers.

It is equally critical for businesses, especially those in the retail space, to know that the competition is no more only the next store. The competition can be a small website being run by individuals who have barely gone past their teenage years. These small e-commerce businesses can pose a great challenge for even the most established conglomerates. The established brick-and-mortar businesses must therefore find ways of making their products very competitive, otherwise, they stand the chance of becoming glorified showrooms. By way of discounts and other price reduction techniques, businesses can ensure that customers who come in just to window shop will stay and make the purchase offline.

If there is anything the advent of newer ways of shopping and other consumer habits has taught us, it must be the fact that customer behaviour will ever be evolving. It is therefore important for businesses to always be ready and nimble enough to change when their customers change. It is however clear that for as long people remain people, there will always be the issue of mistrust. With customer mistrust comes the need for customers to come into a physical location to either pick up the item or inspect the item. Technology will continue to get more sophisticated but people will continue to be people—and as long as this pertains, there will always be webrooming and showrooming.

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