The Conversation

The War Against 'Combat Shoppers' Heats up in Australia

Interesting news from The Blaze about a brick-and-mortar retailer in Australia who's had just about enough of "combat shoppers" - people who look at stuff in a conventional retail store, then order it online, sometimes right on the spot using their cell phones:

Imagine walking into a store, not to purchase anything, but to browse for future purchases or to just pass the time. Then imagine being in said store and being told that you owe a $5 “just looking” fee.

That’s exactly what Celiac Supplies, a gluten free grocery store in Brisbane, Australia, intends to do to combat shoppers who browse but don’t buy.“

As of the first of February, this store will be charging people a $5 fee for ‘just looking,’” the sign reads. “The $5 fee will be deducted when goods are purchased.”

Why implement a policy that will obviously be unpopular among customers? Celiac Supplies goes on to explain that the new policy is meant to fight individuals who “use this store as a reference and then purchase goods elsewhere.”

“This policy is in line with many other clothing, shoe and electronic stores who are also facing the same issue,” the sign concludes.

There's no "good" way to do something like this, but it occurs to me that a better approach would be charging a fee for admission to the store, refundable upon making a purchase, and perhaps offer some inexpensive inducement - a free beverage or snack - to ease the pain of that $5 fee.  I'm trying to imagine the scene when a bunch of Aussies are confronted by a store owner as they try to leave the store, and told they owe $5 for "just looking."  Or, for domestic what-if fun, try relocating such a scene to New Jersey.

As The Blaze notes, American retailers have been moving in the opposite direction, offering to match prices when they spot customers combat-shopping with their smart phones.  It's an intriguing dilemma, particularly since brick-and-mortar retailers are forever complaining about the sales tax advantage enjoyed by Internet purchases.  But that's really not their biggest problem, particularly on smaller purchases.  I doubt many shoppers would forgo the immediate acquisition of a small item to save a tiny amount of money on sales tax, but that probably becomes more of a consideration when the price runs into hundreds of dollars, and the product in question is no longer an immediate need or impulse buy.

The more intractable problem is the immense overhead paid by traditional retailers - staff, rent, electricity, display fixtures, etc.  There's just no way for them to compete with the cost and convenience of online shopping.  You can get a dozen competitive prices for any given item in a matter of seconds at your computer, but it would take you all day to gather such prices at a conventional retailer.  I've personally found myself aborting shopping expeditions after a single stop - if I couldn't get it for a decent price at the first store I visited, and I didn't absolutely it right away, out came the smartphone, right there in the parking lot.

I remember confronting the first wave of "combat shopping" when I held retail jobs in college, back in the late 80s and early 90s.  People weren't doing much of it online back then, but they'd visit stores known for excellent displays and high-quality customer service to do their shopping... then dash over to Wal-Mart to do the buying.  Now Wal-Mart and Target are facing the same treatment from even more devastating online competitors.  It's all marvelous for consumers, but just as the super-stores killed off a lot of boutique retailers, so online shopping threatens to turn a good deal of traditional retail into an antique practice.  We probably don't want to lose the jobs created by such operations, the joys of in-person shopping, or the convenience of being able to walk out of the store with desired goods tucked under our arms... but how much are we willing to pay for those advantages?


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