The Browsing Fee and the Larger Problem of Showrooming

This week, we wrote about an Australian store that charges customers $5 if they come in and browse. Most—though not all—of our commenters thought the idea was pretty strange; part of the reason the story has gone viral is because of how outlandish it was. Some even suspected the whole thing was fake.

It isn’t; the store has since been identified as Celiac Supplies, a Brisbane store that sells gluten-free products. According to a local news report which conducted a highly amusing interview with store owner Georgina, the fee isn’t charged to regular customers, and it’s only been collected a grand total of four times in two months. (It’s taken at the door, and deducted from any order.) Considering all the grief the owner has gotten in the media and on the store’s Facebook page, it hardly seems worth the $20.  

Even so, the reasons the owner instituted the fee will probably strike a chord with some of JCK’s readers:

“I have to wake people up, everything in life is not free.”

The big problem for Georgina is that people come in, seek her advice, then take their business elsewhere, either online or to the big supermarket chains.

“I’m not a charity, and I’m not doing community service,” she said.

“I don’t want to take the job of a dietician, I don’t want to take the job of a naturopath or a nutritionist, but people are expecting freebies all the time and when you say ‘hey, you’re costing me time and effort’, they don’t like the idea of paying.”

She says that while some customers have declined to come in since she instituted the fee, her business overall hasn’t suffered. 

For what it’s worth, I have to agree that retailers should not charge browsing fees. Retailers need to get more people in their stores, not give them reasons to turn away. But showrooming—viewing something at a brick-and-mortar store, and then buying it online—may be here to stay, and retailers need to think of practical, non-crazy ways to combat it.

The key, according to experts, is getting back to basics: Offering a great retail experience, with excellent customer service. A recently released study on showrooming found that 75 percent of online shoppers consider brick-and-mortar retail salespeople unhelpful. The study’s author concluded:

“For in-store retailers to add genuine value … they require training to enable them to be better informed, better guided and sufficiently empowered, so they can meet their customer’s ever evolving expectations. 

Quite simply, the need for a ‘human to human’ conversation is the reason many avoid online shopping, but if the visit doesn’t meet their expectations, is there a point in them traveling to the store?”

This doesn’t mean that price isn’t important; it certainly is in this day and age. But I don’t think it’s an accident that the most frequently showroomed store is Best Buy. If that chain offered a better experience, perhaps people would feel happier buying there. As an Australian retail expert said in response to Georgina’s browsing fee:

“Many shop owners would love to be in her shoes. If I were her I’d be collecting data from the customers that come in, then you could create a community hub, put out a weekly information email, engage with schools and try to teach people about Celiac disease. 

“Rather than looking to restrict information to consumers, she should try and leverage off her expertise in the field.”

Some people will always try to game the system; for jewelers, showroomers are just variations of the customers that come into their stores with sheets full of diamond prices.

But in most cases, if people like a business, if that business helps them, then they will try and help it back. The retailers who prosper in today’s competitive environment are the ones who make customers happy they came in the door—especially because we are living in a world where they no longer have to.

JCK News Director