Let's Discuss: Should Stores Charge a Fee for Just Browsing?

By , dealnews Media Editor

Showrooming: It's when a customer walks into a brick-and-mortar store, tries out a product, and then leaves and buys the item online. Since the intent of a showroomer is never to buy anything during said trip, the practice is really starting to annoy retail stores.

One merchant in Brisbane, Australia (which sells food and supplies to those with celiac disease) has finally had enough. Unhappy that customers to his store were showrooming, the owner has implemented a $5 fee for "just looking." If the customer ends up buying something, that $5 is reimbursed on their bill.

This is clearly not the best situation for all parties involved. Customers certainly don't want to lay out $5; and it's doubtful that the owner really wanted to put this policy into place had he not felt it was necessary for his business' survival. On Facebook, he explained, "I get some very sick people through the door, and all occupy 20 to 30 minutes, average, of time. Like anyone else, I would like to get paid for my work."

We want to know what you think! Can a small business owner be forgiven for such a practice because he's just trying to survive in the "buy everything on the Internet" world? What if a larger merchant were to attempt such a thing? How are stores supposed to combat showrooming? Sound off in the comments below!

Front page photo credit: Weird NJ
Photo credit: Penny Dreadful

Jeff Somogyi is the dealnews Media Editor. See more of his questions on Google+, Twitter, or on his comic book blog.

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Showrooming is unethical in my book. To tie up the store's employee's time knowing full well you have no intention of buying from them is no way justifiable and this applies even shopping at Best Buy (even if they do try to see you an extended warranty). However charging a 'browsing fee' is going to hurt the store more than it will help. Price comparison shopping is normal. I could go to Target to look at their price and then go to BestBuy to see what they are selling the same product for. However asking questions and getting recommendations from the store's staff is a different thing. The store might consider charging an 'advice/consultation' fee of which it is then credited back towards the purchase. For anything other than a simply answer, if a person is seeking advice/recommendation, the fee is charged and hopefully the person will purchase the product at the store and the say $5 consultation fee is credited to the purchase.
I do think it's kind of shabby to go to a small business, occupy the merchant's time, and take advantage of his expertise--all without ever intending to buy anything. Like the Australian says, he's got a right to be paid for his work like anybody else.
That's how I feel about showrooming at small shops. Someplace like Best Buy is an entirely different story. Anyone who's ever endured the hard sell for an extended warranty would never feel guilty about showrooming there. Nor would anyone who had tried to buy a laptop there, only to find that the only ones in stock had undergone BB's costly and unnecessary "enhancement" add-on.
In general, if I saw a sign in a window telling me I was going to have to pay just to look, I'd turn straight around and leave.
Let walk-in customers walk in for free, but don't offer 20-30 minutes of service. Let them look around, point out where to find a certain item if need be, but don't waste so much time if you are having a problem with them going elsewhere to purchase.

Offer a membership and advertise that a special part of this membership is an intensive customer service approach where you will spend 20-30 minutes teaching them in depth about your products and their particular needs.

You could advertise this specialty service online etc. This offer alone may bring in new customers, as there are undoubtedly people out there who need help in this area. They will greatly appreciate the experience and will be much more likely to shop there again.

You cold do other specials for members only, like coupon deals or a free members-only guest speaker who could come and teach or give recipes using foods people could purchase in your store. Or members-only sample days to try the products you sell.
And yet another uncompetitive local store blames the big scary internet for their crappy business model.
I agree with Rick3663. If this seller can't compete in a free market environment, then he should get out of the game altogether. Charging his customers a $5 fee will only serve to accelerate the demise of his business. Dumbee's comparison to Costco doesn't apply here. Costco's membership fee is justified by deeply discounted prices and stellar customer service. Charging a $5 fee without corresponding benefits will kill what little business he has left.
$5.00 entree fee = Your prices are too high in the first place... I'd Shop somewhere else for sure...
This is a very wrong answer to a very common problem. There are many other ways to make up that revenue. Diversify your product line with lower cost items. For instance if you are selling to people with celiacs (gluten intolerance) sell eatable items suited to your clients needs. Frustration and lack of innovative thought kills small retail. Think out side of the box.
Just make your prices competitive to online prices. I'd be willing to even pay a small premium on some things that I need now. I know overhead is higher in retail stores, but the big price difference on some stuff just isn't worth it.
I often browse in stores just to look around to see if there might be something interesting there. If there was a fee for browsing I would not go in and any potential impulse sales (and I do that quite a bit) would be lost because I will not pay such a fee. Even to pay and get it back would be an annoying delay so unless that store had something unique to offer I would not go in.
personally, I find show rooming sketchy. I usually know what I want online and am able to buy it without checking it out first. If I go to a store, it's usually to checkout something to buy there or to get something that I can't wait for. (like if I run out of printer ink without thinking in advance)
The problem this retailer has is that this has never been confined to just online shopping. Back in the days before internet, people use to do this all the time. Go to one store to check it out and then go to another to buy it. But a least the theory would be that they can get you in the store.
I do find the sense of entitlement of the internet shopper really off-putting though.
To the people who say that the market is free and level are kidding themselves. I do think B&M stores could do more to highlight their advantages and and federal law on interest taxes would go a long way towards leveling things.
Why not try?...Warehouse clubs require a pre-paid membership, REI charges a (membership) fee for their enticement of an annual rebate for premium priced merchandise.
Hell no! Its call free market. If you cannot compete, get out of the game.
I am with cw30755, I would NEVER pay a fee just to browse in a store. I don't even pay annual membership fees for stores like Costco. I can find better deals at other stores and don't mind online shopping at all.
Don't make it an entrance fee, make it a membership fee like Costco or samsclub. Get competitive, go Internet sales as well as store brick location. I do both. Instant Ineeditnowbuyit and wait for the sale...
I would NEVER pay a fee just to browse in a store.
Bob Ballas
Interesting - Both need each other to survive. In 2013 one cannot survive without the other. The Manufacturer should have two cost statures - One for Brick and Mortar and a higher cost for the .com's. Kind of like Revenue sharing in MLB. Their also should be a Federal sales tax on .com purchases to cover the lost local revenue being lost by sales tax avoidance.
The National pastime in United States in not Baseball, it's shopping! Lets preserve our national pastime.
Capitalism is all about market efficiency. There's a gap right now between online & BM. In time this gap will continue to narrow. An entrance fee might work well. Factors like instant gratification, personal attention, "the hands on experience" have a value and a cost. Value is the bottomline, not price alone.
I think right now (RIGHT now) is a great opportunity for large B&Ms (I'm looking at you, Best Buy) to change their business model. If they could convert their stores to showroom-only mode, employ a minimal staff of security/Q&A people and move to online-only sales quickly, they'd be able to get customers used to this idea before internet sales tax becomes a reality. They could charge a cover fee that would be credited toward an online purchase. Now, _they_ would have the advantage over Amazon or Newegg who now (hypothetically) also have to charge sales tax, because they would have the online price, the showroom, and the deposit-refund incentive of purchasing with them. They could also get kick-backs from manuf's for displaying their products in the showroom. In some markets, the manuf's could even employ knowledgeable demo people for hot product releases.
In Vegas over 10 YEARS ago, we wanted to browse a small trendy clothing/accesory store for night club/party type wear. This store was WAY off the beaten path, but they were charging a $5 entry fee that I believe was put toward any purchase you made. NO WAY were we that desperate to part with our money. Possibly they lost paying customers who would have spent more than $5, but we were too ticked off at an entry fee just to allow us to be cool enough to peruse the goods. I saw another person turn around too. For that same $5 I could go back to the strip to become a millionaire or drink myself silly for a whole week.
This store seems very niche, so it's not something I'd see actually happening to real world B&M stores anytime soon. B&M's should be doing everything in their power to entice people IN to their stores, not give them yet another reason to go online. I thought about it after I read the article, and realize now that aside from grocery shopping (which takes place in a retail store), I don't go in to most B&Ms that often anymore. I'll go to Best Buy in a pinch. I'll hit Target when we're bored and a destination is needed. For the most part, when we need something, it's off to Amazon we go. I don't really know that I even like that trend, but if I can get a better deal and it will be shipped to me in two days, it's hard to say no.
My sentiments reflect that of the previous commentors, in that I can understand the frustration but fear the policy will have a detrimental effect on business. I would take the "you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar," because the current proposed solution would be perceived with an air of malice toward the regulars. I would instead put a sign at the exit that says, "Like what you see? "I get some very sick people through the door, and all occupy 20 to 30 minutes, average, of time. Like anyone else, I would like to get paid for my work."" That enables the consumer to give, rather than treats all costumers as criminals before they enter.
I really don'tthink this can be considered a normal B&M store store. It is a specialty health food store. It appears the owner is selling a service, advice and consultation, free with purchase. If people feel his knowledge is worth paying for then he should be paid. I don't see this being the same as paying the high school kid at Best Buy for half-assed answers.
One word says it all DOOM!
I can understand the frustration a B&M would have with a "showroomer". However, a move like this is only going to push consumers out of the B&M's and make internet shopping that much more appealing thus defeating their purpose.
You want to charge people to look at your goods? Have fun running a declining business. If you have a cool store then show it off - isn't the whole point to get people into your store... and once there the owners should be offering some deals or something to get sales rather than going online and finding the same item for 20% less and buying it via internet. Can you imagine if Dealnews charged people $5 for sales?

Depends - im sure some people have no issue with it and im sure at the same time others would despise your business. It's one of those sink or swim type of deals I would think. I wouldn't pay $5 for one store but online where I can view hundreds of stores at once - maybe - just maybe.