‘Online shopping is killing the high street’ – an idea that’s repeated so often, it’s almost universally accepted as the truth. But is this an accurate statement?

A casual glance at the market suggests yes, with another big-name store in crisis every few months, and reports of the UK government considering an ‘Amazon tax’ to level the playing field for smaller retailers. But even in the UK, with the largest percentage of online shopping of any major developed economy, the impact of the internet on the high street isn’t always negative.

What is showrooming?

In the traditional narrative of physical vs online shopping, ‘showrooming’ is the big threat for brick-and-mortar retailers. This is the tendency of consumers to visit physical stores to research a product – see it, touch it, try it on – before going home and finding a better deal online, or even whipping out their phone and ordering from an internet retailer, right there in the shop.

Obviously, showrooming is detrimental to high street retailers asthey foot the bill of a physical location to accommodate shoppers who end up spending their money elsewhere. But looking at the bigger picture, the devastating impact of showrooming is questionable.

Showrooming is just one type of consumer behaviour; it tends to be more prevalent among younger shoppers, and it affects certain products disproportionally, with high-value electricals and furniture more likely to be purchased online following offline research.

Showrooming vs webrooming

The flipside of showrooming is ‘webrooming’. Also known as ‘research online, purchase offline’ or ROPO, webrooming is a trend where consumers check out a product digitally before picking it up at a physical shop.

A 2015 report from Deloitte highlights the webrooming phenomenon, finding that consumers who look up in-store products on mobile devices are more likely to buy from a physical shop, not less. In 2016, Google reported that 82% of shoppers check their phones to research products before buying offline.

Webrooming, as a form of counter-showrooming, is good news for physical retailers. Even so, there’s no doubt that internet sales will continue eating into the high street. In this context, it remains vital for retailers to find the right balance between online and offline.

How to balance physical and online

If it wasn’t already obvious, a multichannel strategy is key. A business can sell primarily offline or online, as long as customers always have the option to buy on their own terms. Multichannel retailers have the opportunity to capitalise on both showrooming and webrooming – but to do this, they need to understand the reasons why consumers opt for either mode of shopping.

With showrooming, for example, shoppers are attracted by the tactility of a physical product inspection, combined with the lower prices and convenience of ordering online. Outside of price-matching schemes, it’s not always possible to undercut online sellers, but buying offline usually means no delivery charge – and multichannel retailers can provide a great in-store experience alongside the convenience of an ecommerce platform.

This means offering services like click and collect, with some consumers actually finding it more convenient to pick up a product at a retail location, rather than paying for delivery and waiting around at home. Similarly, retailers can help shoppers avoid disappointment by displaying in-store product availability online. An intuitive website or mobile app can be extremely beneficial in these situations.

In both showrooming and webrooming scenarios, consumers are attracted by a real place to visit, real products to see, and real people to talk to. Physical retailers can maximise this advantage with helpful, knowledgeable staff, and the reassurance that there’s always a place for customers to go if anything goes wrong.

Offline retail: not dead, just evolving

What’s clear is that online shopping isn’t so much killing the high street as forcing it to change. Customer experience is everything, and traditional retail is having to adapt and embrace the latest innovations. From online VR environments to robotic in-store assistants, the next generation of retail technology won’t be limited to either online shops or physical locations.

Ultimately, consumers still enjoy the experience of shopping in a real store as much as they love buying online – and whether they’re showrooming, webrooming or just good old-fashioned bargain-hunting, forward-looking, multichannel retailers will always have something to offer.

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