Browse in a Store, then Buy Online: Is This Fair?
Q: My best friend routinely visits department stores and specialty retailers in our hometown to check out the latest stuff--trying on clothes, thumbing through best-selling books and asking the sales staff to show her how appliances and gadgets work. Then she goes home, turns on her computer and orders all the merchandise online at lower prices. Do you think this is acceptable behavior?
A: No. If she has benefited from the physical presence of a local store and its helpful sales staff to view, handle and learn about products she's interested in buying, she should make her purchase there, too. (Her behavior is analogous to asking a full-service broker for stock picks and then placing the orders through a deep-discount online broker.)
The local store's price will typically be higher than the online retailer's because the store has much higher overhead -- expenses such as utilities, sales staff and advertising. Plus, the store has to collect local sales tax, which helps pay for community services. (In a column last September, I offered the opinion that state and local sales taxes should be collected uniformly on all merchandise, whether a buyer makes the purchase at a retail store or from a catalog or online seller.)
Tell your friend that, at the very least, she should give the local store a sporting chance to make the sale. She should bring the retailer a printout that shows how much the item will cost her online and ask whether the store will meet that price. Some stores will match the online price, offer a discount or sweeten the deal with a coupon or gift.
Please note that I, like most people, use both online and in-store retailers. Sometimes I find and buy things online that aren't available in local stores. In other instances, I do my research online to see which products meet my needs, read online descriptions and objective reviews, compare prices, and narrow my choices. Then I go out and look at the merchandise in a brick-and-mortar store and -- unlike your friend -- make my purchase there. There's a place for both kinds of shopping. But wherever possible, I like to support local businesses.