Why are you still shopping offline?

Today I visited one of the largest national office supply outlets. I had a specific purpose in mind. I needed to pickup 2 wireless routers and 1 audio cable. What transpired caused me to wonder why anyone does any offline shopping anymore.

My experience at the store caused me to reflect on the many things we simply put up with at the store which we would never permit online.

To begin with I had to drive to the store. For me this was about a 25 minute round trip during a traffic filled rush hour. My best estimate is that I used 2+ gallons of gas. Arriving at the parking lot, I had to wait and circle before a spot was available. I thought “do that many people really shop for office supplies at 6pm on a Wednesday night?” Entering the store I realized why. It was a madhouse of teenagers and their parents. Should have guessed, mid August = back to school. I located the section for the networking equipment pretty quickly as it was relatively close to the entrance and well marked. The selection was pretty slim. They didn’t carry the model I wanted so I ended up settling with a the next best model (with the promise of 14 days to return) because that was the best one they carried. As I was searching through the routers for the right one, I overheard a conversation between a staff member and a customer. The staff member was telling the customer how bad Vista was and all that was wrong with it. I don’t like Vista very much, or really any MS operating system (I would pick windows 2000 if I had to choose). It was quite funny how completely wrong he was. He was attacking Vista on all the points that were it’s strengths, and clearly hadn’t every used it. This was the so called expert that the brick and mortar store provide. Honestly could you ask for more. If people really knew what they were talking about they wouldn’t be working retail.

After settling on the routers, I went searching for a audio cable. This was quite a bit harder than the routers to find. I actually ended up circling the store a couple times as the section wasn’t marked. Because of the large crowd of kids and parents, who both looked frazzled about what they were doing, there were no available “can I help you” clerks available. “It can’t be that hard to find an audio cable”. 15 minutes later I found the only one that they stocked. It was clearly a special cable and marked as such. An “ipod dub cable”. I don’t really know what that means, but apparently it meant that they could charge $10 for this standard audio cable. Principles are principles. I didn’t need that cable enough to justify the obvious rip off going on here.

Lastly there was the checkout. There were two registers open and the lines were at least 5 customers long. The cashiers didn’t know how to handle the ‘back to school’ rush, and apparently neither did the managers. I was in line 10 minutes before I had finally checked out. The checkout clerk was courteous, but slow.

What dawned on me was that this retail store must have been employing a good solid dozen people who did nothing more than find things for people, and check them out. Because they were in short supply, you always had to wait in line until one freed up to be able to help you. The sheer amount of labor costs just maintaining the store must be considerable.

To translate my experience to the online world.

It took me 15 minutes before arriving at the store. I had to pay about $8 (gas) for the privilege of doing so. They didn’t have either of the two items I wanted. One seemed to be close enough so instead of going somewhere else (it would have meant quite a bit more driving and more time I didn’t have) I bought it. There was a lot of waiting. Breaking it down I spent

  • 25 minutes driving
  • 5 minutes parking
  • 25 minutes searching for 2 items.
  • 10 minutes waiting for a checkout to open.
  • 3 minutes checking out.

Altogether the experience took well over an hour and I had to pay easily more in gas than what shipping would have been. Unlike online where I usually have really helpful comments from others who have used the product I had to wait in line to have the opportunity of talking to someone who had been trained in the art of talking about things he has never used, nor does he actually know much about. Some online checkouts are more painful than others, usually it is pretty quick though, especially if you have shopped at that website before. I would just leave if I had to wait to checkout online and go visit a website that respected my time, but at the store this is expected. Online stores have much larger selections and the advantage that if they either don’t carry the item, or don’t offer it for an acceptable price, it is very easy to go to another website. Here the driving cost alone, not to mention the time, makes it highly inconvenient to goto another store. I knew exactly what I wanted, but a quick search took ~ 25 minutes. Online we get frustrated when our search results take more that 2.5 seconds. Because there is no cost to leaving a store and going to a competitor online it forces online shops to provide competitive prices. Many websites have been created for the sole purpose of comparing  prices of online retailers. As a result, online pricing is almost always quite a bit less, even when shipping is factored in.

So brick and mortar stores work really well for perishable items and some other obscure purchases, like appliances. With those as exceptions, Why are you still shopping at brick and mortar stores? Is the ability to touch and see and feel, and immediately have the product outweigh all the disadvantages inherent to brick and mortar stores? Hasn’t netflix proved the superiority of the online model?