'Webrooming' trend reduces online shipping costs, problems


Showrooming -- where you browse in stores, then buy online -- is so last year. This holiday season, many savvy shoppers are "webrooming" instead.

About 68 percent of U.S. holiday shoppers are very or somewhat likely to engage in "webrooming," which involves browsing online then heading to brick-and-mortar stores to make their holiday purchases, according to Deloitte's 2014 annual holiday survey.

Webrooming helps cut gift-buying costs

The trend is increasingly popular, especially in light of shipping fiascos, such as the one that happened last year when snowy weather and other glitches delayed FedEx and UPS deliveries, leaving some families without gifts Dec. 25. "UPS went on the record and said, 'We blew Christmas,'" says Scott Testa, a retail expert and assistant professor of economics at Arcadia University, near Philadelphia.

"Those mistakes stick in consumers' minds," he says.

Consumers are using home computers, tablets and smartphones to research product features, read customer reviews and compare prices, but plan to do 52 percent of their seasonal spending in stores, says Lisa Gomez, a principal for the retail practice at Deloitte Consulting.

Biggest holiday savings?
Why would tech savvy consumers drive to the store instead of just buying with a click while still in their holiday jammies? The main reason: to save money.

By webrooming, holiday shoppers take advantage of the best online deals without having to pay for shipping, experts say.

That's possible because many retailers have created price-matching programs to bring online shoppers back into stores, says Richard Feinberg, professor of consumer sciences and retailing at Purdue University. Even at stores that don't have programs, you can track down a manager and ask for a match, he says. "Say, 'I really want to buy here and I love your store, but I can get this on Amazon for $20 cheaper.'"

About 36 percent of consumers who webroom ask brick-and-mortar stores to match prices found on the Web, according to a 2014 report from Merchant Warehouse, a company that provides payment solutions to retailers. "Any consumer who doesn't ask for a price match is making a mistake," Feinberg says.

Any consumer who doesn't ask for a price match is making a mistake.

-- Richard Feinberg
Professor, Perdue University

There are additional savings, too. About 47 percent of consumers who webroom do so to avoid shipping costs, according to the Merchant Warehouse report.

In order to compete against consumers with, say, Amazon Prime membership, which costs $99 annually but makes shipping free for millions of products, some retailers announced free shipping for online orders this holiday season. For example, Target is offering free shipping (which was typically reserved for REDcard members) on all orders through Dec 20. Some stores require customers to spend a certain amount to get the perk. For example, Macy's is offering free holiday shipping on orders of $99 or more. Stores often set their free-shipping minimums a little higher than their average order amount, which can sway customers to spend more, money saving expert Andrea Woroch says.

Also, consumers considering buying online should think about possible return shipping costs, too, Feinberg says. If that red plaid earflap cap you bought Uncle Bob just isn't his style, can he return it in store or will he have to pay to ship it back? "Call the retailer's 800 number and ask," Feinberg says.

Pre-shop online to avoid holiday hassles
In addition to saving money, webrooming also can save time by allowing consumers to quickly check out gifts in person so they don't have to rush to exchange an online order that's not quite right, experts say.

About 46 percent of consumers who browse online but buy in store say they want to touch and feel a product before buying, according to the Merchant Warehouse report. That's because it can be difficult on a screen to see the quality, material and even the exact color of items such as clothing, jewelry and home goods, Woroch says. In a store, though, you can sniff the cologne you're buying your husband, check out the TV Santa may be bringing your kid and feel the fleece blanket you're getting Grandma.

Pre-shopping online and creating a short list of items to examine in person can also make your store visit very focused, says Joe Beier, executive vice president of shopper and retail strategy at market research firm GfK. "It's great for folks who aren't keen on the mad rush that is retail at Christmastime," he says.

Once you verify you chose the right gift, you can get it that day. In fact, almost one-quarter of consumers say they shop online but buy in store because they don't want to wait for the merchandise to arrive, according to Merchant Warehouse. "Consumers want instant gratification," says Testa.

Get the most out of holiday webrooming
If you want to use webrooming to save money and avoid headaches this holiday season, take these six steps:

  1. Make a list. Before you can start shopping online, you need an idea of what items you plan to buy. Use your smartphone to keep track of your list and budget with an app such as Christmas Gift List.
  2. Scout deals online. Use price comparison and tracking sites such as PriceGrabber, TheFind and CamelCamelCamel to find the lowest prices for items on your list, Woroch says. Also sign up to get emails from your favorite stores because subscribers often get early door-buster access or special VIP discounts, says Jenn Reichenbacher, senior director of corporate and channel marketing for Merchant Warehouse.
  3. Pick your retailers. Don't choose stores solely for low prices, Feinberg says. Look for good customer service and easy returns, he says. Also, look at price-matching policies. The site has an overview of major retailer price matching programs, but be sure to check the store's website too. And print Web pages or bookmark sites on your smartphone to take along as proof of the bargain you found online.
  4. Get store apps before you go. It's becoming more common for retailers to offer in-store discounts on their shopping apps, Beier says. The app can tell when a customer has entered the store and might offer special deals and even extra rewards points just for walking in, he says. For example, you may want to check out the Wal-Mart app
  5. Make sure your items are in stock. Before you head to the store, look online or call the retailer to make sure they have the item, Testa says, adding that the retailers tend to keep fewer items in stock than they did in the past. "Inventory is expensive," he says. Retailers usually can order or transfer an item from another store location. "But you might have to wait a week," he says.
  6. After you buy, watch for price drops. As part of their price matching programs, some stores will refund you the difference if you find a lower price later. And if you buy your gifts with a credit card that offers price protection, you might be owed a refund of the difference if the price drops. For example, Citi's Price Rewind feature lets a consumer register a purchase, then scans for lower prices for the next 60 days. If your card has a similar perk, you won't have to deal with the retailer at all, Feinberg says: "The credit card company will take care of it."

Do most of your browsing online before you hit the stores, and you should be able to make your holiday shopping less harried, and maybe even merry.

See related: 3 ways to curb pre-holiday money stress, Retailers roll out layaway plans early for 2014 holidays

Published: November 25, 2014

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