One way online shopping is actually helping brick-and-mortar retailers

Robert Drayton uses his smartphone to help him find the right gifts and compare prices at Toys R Us in New York, Monday, Nov. 28, 2011. Shoppers seem to be just as enthusiastic about shopping on their computers and smartphones on Cyber Monday as they were about finding deals over the Black Friday weekend. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
A shopper uses his smartphone to compare prices at Toys R Us in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Several years ago, as online shopping grew in popularity, traditional retailers grew deeply concerned about “showrooming” –when consumers visit brick-and-mortar stores to test out products but ultimately make their purchase online from a competitor.

Now, a new study from Nielsen adds to a growing body of research that shows that showrooming is not, in fact, the biggest factor upending traditional shopping patterns.

Nielsen surveyed more than 30,000 consumers across 60 countries for its report on the state of e-commerce, which it released last week. And while 51 percent of respondents said they browse products in stores before ultimately buying them on the Web, an even larger number said they do the opposite:  60 percent of consumers said they often browse products online before ultimately purchasing them in stores.

The results may help explain why many retailers say they are intensely focused on building what’s known as an omni-channel retail strategy — one that provides a more seamless experience among the retailers’ digital and in-store properties.  That way, no matter where shoppers begin their browsing process — online or in a store — retailers hope they can hang onto them for the purchase.

The focus on omni-channel selling is showing up in a variety of ways in the retail industry:  Stores such as Nordstrom, Sears and Apple are offering customers an option to buy their goods online and pick them in a nearby store. Gap said on its most recent earnings conference call that it is testing a new “order-in-store” option in about 30 locations, in which customers at their brick-and-mortar stores can place an online order from within the shop. Bonobos, a men’s clothing retailer, recently opened stores where customers can purchase items but don’t leave with their merchandise in-hand — instead, it’s shipped to their doorstep days later.

Experts say that the “Web-rooming” practice has helped empower shoppers, making it easier for them to compare prices and do comprehensive research on an important purchase.  It also creates a new dynamic for retailers, who must adapt to a consumer who is highly informed.

Another study from Accenture, released earlier this year, also found “Web-rooming” to be more common than showrooming. In that study of U.S. consumers, 88 percent of respondents said they browsed online before buying in a store, compared to 73 percent who showroomed.  A 2014 report from payment solutions firm Merchant Warehouse also found a greater number of shoppers “Web-roomed” than showroomed.

The Nielsen study offered other insights about shoppers’ changing behavior in the digital era.  Researchers asked consumers whether they intended to browse online and/or buy online in the next six months for a variety of products.  For many categories, there was a strong correlation rate between intentions to buy and browse.  For the clothing, shoes and accessories category, for example, 46 percent of respondents said they intended to browse online; the exact same share said they intended to buy online.

But the correlation rate between browsing and buying was lower for merchandise such as electronic equipment, mobile phones, computer hardware and software and automobiles. The study notes that  “these products can carry a high price tag and often require a physical try-before-you-buy test run.”

This chart, courtesy of John Burbank, Nielsen’s  president of strategic initiatives, offers a good rundown of which items have strongest browse-to-buy correlations:


Chart courtesy of John Burbank, president of strategic initiatives at Nielsen.

Nielsen also examined how many shoppers in 2014 planned to buy certain products online compared with how many planned to do so in 2011. In 12 of the 22 categories measured, including event tickets, toys and sporting goods, the share of shoppers who planned to buy online doubled in the last three years.  Rates have nearly tripled for how many shoppers plan to buy baby supplies online.

“The lightning-fast pace of change in the digital landscape has ushered in a consumer mindset that is both adventurous and exploratory when it comes to online shopping,” said Burbank in a statement announcing the results of the study.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economics news.
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