Traditional Retail: Stop Whining, Start Reverse Showrooming

Doug TurnbullNovember 30, 2016

We’re all familiar with showrooming. It’s the phenomenon where shoppers go to the store, see something they like, then check amazon to see if the item is available. Traditional, brick & mortar retailers love to blame their low sales on this phenomenon. Yet, as a shopper that understands search & recommendations, I rarely find brick & mortar retailers demonstrate the kind of technical innovation needed to counter the showrooming phenomenon.

Today I want to talk about one strategy traditional retailers can use: reverse showrooming. What do I mean by reverse showrooming? Basically that retailers take advantage of my materialistic lust to have an item right fricken now while I’m sitting at home. With reverse showooming I sit in front of my computer/phone and try out Best Buy or Costco to see if I could get the item sooner. It’s reverse because it’s a chance to get in on Amazon’s territory: the user sitting in front of their computer/phone wanting something.

If you’ve ever had a thought “I want something right now” and visited a or to see if you can get it right away, you’re a prime candidate to be targeted for reverse showrooming. Unfortunately, most traditional brick & mortar create too much friction and optimize in too many directions. They don’t see themselves as immediate gratification engines and instead focus on trying to compete with Amazon.

Here’s the hindrances I’ve had when trying to satisfy my materialistic urges:

The first hindrance is search is no good. I can’t find what I want. If I search for “surface” and I get a list of “surface cleaners” on your store, I’m likely not going to continue my journey. Many retailers consider their digital storefronts secondary. They focus on SEO or other forms of Internet marketing, but don’t think about the user’s journey through the actual store.

Another related problem is when search is hyperfocussed on giving me the “one right answer” to my search. In the case of “reverse showrooming” I don’t want the perfect item, I want to just browse the shelves for a little immediate retail therapy. This plays towards physical retail’s more limited inventory. Focus more on recall: letting the user compare and contrast 3 or 4 options. Focus on content-specific filters, that let narrow their priorities in ways that reflect what users prioritize for that content type. An example of this is my experience buying a laptop bag on NorthFace’s site.

Lower-inventory, traditional retail needs to focus on quality over quantity. Amazon is all about quantity. They leave it to the user to do needed research on their extremely vast array of products–and its a lot of work! With reverse showrooming, I’m making a knee-jerk buying decision. Don’t let me hesitate on buying. Don’t leave any chance for having a thought-hiccup that I’m about to spend $250 on a graphics card. Think about the Apple Store: I rarely hesitate on a buying decision. They have a limited, high quality set of inventory that I trust. It’s also like the four star restaurant with five, seasonal items on the menu. The chef has carefully selected the ingredients and crafted a handful of dishes. How can your store become an expert in what it sells? Remember this expertise can pay for itself if it leads to immediate, gratification focussed sales.

How does this relate to e-commerce search? User reviews on anything other than Amazon seem hard to trust. They range from 4 stars to 5 stars. In a search results listing, when comparing/contrasting a few items to purchase those stars seem like a big distraction. When a user then goes to do further research elsewhere, these stars don’t align well to what experts elsewhere say. This causes the shopper to discount the store’s authority on the products they sell. Does Best Buy really know computer graphics cards? Do they really understand computer monitors? Maybe I should go elsewhere…

Another consideration is to define reliable metrics can be used to optimize for your ability to satisfy material lust? Search and recommendations is perhaps unhealthily focussed on optimizing clickthru. The more important metrics are closer to business-level. Optimize for how many “buy it in store” products. If you have a delivery service, optimize for this. You can then A/B test a variety of optimizations for these more business focussed metrics, not just clickthru. We focus on finding the right high-level metrics in our search relevance methodology. In our experience, this can be one of the most important and challenging aspects to any search or recommendations systems.

Another consideration is trying to completely separate the Amazon-like “ship it to me” user experience from the retail-therapy “buy it now” user experience. Perhaps traditional retail should give up on the former, and focus on being a Web-first retail therapy delivery system. This is very important: it speaks to what’s being optimized for. If you’re optimizing in two directions at the same time, you’ll do a poor job at both. In particular the Amazon-like experience is a race to the bottom. It’s optimizing a network of delivery systems for cost. You need to optimize for something else: immediate gratification without hesitation.

If you’d like to discuss how your site can be optimized for reverse showrooming, or any other use case, don’t hesitate to get in touch. We wrote the book on search relevance. We build search and recommendation systems for the best, let us help you!

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