Over the last few years, "showrooming" has received a bad rap. This is the practice where a smartphone-enabled shopper goes into a physical store to touch and feel the merchandise, get expert advice, and then compares prices on their device and purchases online elsewhere. The classic example is of a customer visiting a Barnes & Noble bookstore, checking out the latest novel by Stephen King, asking the associate for his opinion, and then buying it on Amazon.
A new generation of retailers and brand owners, however, has embraced the showrooming concept and taken it to a whole new level. On a recent retail expedition in and around New York's SoHo shopping district, I saw numerous examples, and four caught my eye:
Samsung Galaxy Studio: A warehouse-style space filled with the latest Samsung devices, and not a single one for sale. The idea is for shoppers to play with the product and they get rewarded for doing so. Customers collect points for stopping at each "experience station," and receive free merchandise as prizes at the end. Highlights include a Design Studio, where you can create your own T-shirt with the help of a Samsung Galaxy Tab, and a café where you can order a complimentary cappuccino and pastry via a Samsung device.
The Sound of Porsche: New brands like automotive darling Tesla have stolen some of Porsche's cool, and this pop-up in the Meatpacking District (now closed) was part of an attempt to get it back. The temporary installation was dedicated to selling the sound of the iconic brand. Set up like a vinyl record store, customers could listen to classic car soundtracks, and in the Sound Studio hear the distinctive thrum of the engine and project accompanying visuals onto the surface of a 9-11.
Story "Tech & Style" with Intel: Story is a "retail space that has the point of view of a magazine, changes like a gallery, and sells things like a store." Every six to eight weeks, the entire story of the store changes -- every fixture, every fitting, and every product. Right now the featured "story" is a collaborative effort with Intel, showcasing tech both "on the outside" (e.g. gadgets) and "on the inside" (e.g. embedded in clothing). Wearable technology is a key story, like "Ringly"; jeweled rings that can be paired with your smartphone to vibrate and ring when a message is received.
Chobani SoHo: An artfully designed café showcasing Chobani's signature category-creating Greek yogurt in both savory and sweet "creations," along with coffee and sandwiches. It's as much about the philosophy and aesthetic of Chobani as it is about the yogurt itself.
In each of these cases, the stores are unashamed showrooms, allowing shoppers to interact with and experience the brands on a deep and meaningful level, then (hopefully) spread the word via social media. It's about buying into the brand, not necessarily purchasing from that outlet.
In regular retail too, forward-thinking merchants are happy to treat their stores as showrooms. Apple led the way. From when the very first Apple store opened in 2001, the retail space was a glistening showroom of all things Apple, where customers were encouraged to play with no pressure to purchase. (Of course, it helped that Apple is famously rigid with pricing no matter the vendor, and that they own the brand.) UK department store John Lewis has also significantly built its business on being agnostic about where the sale ends up -- in store or online. They are more than happy for shoppers to be inspired in store and then buy on their devices. Do a good enough job in the store, and the shopper will stick with John Lewis.
For a while, a year or two ago, retailers were penalizing shoppers for treating their stores as showrooms. There was the case in Sydney, Australia, of a ski shop charging customers to try on boots, then refunding if a purchase was made. Wrong move. You can't fight the Internet and you can't bite the hand that feeds you. Instead, it's time to reinvent retail and embrace showrooming.