Research Presentation: Tim Weidman

Online Shopping: The Death of the Salesman and Birth of Informed and In-Control Consumer

Question

Has the constant, immediate access to information via the internet, specifically smartphones, influenced the everyday retail environment?

Keywords

Salesman, Convenience, Control, “Showrooming”

Introduction: The Salesman

From the first trade between a hunter and a farmer to the countless transactions completed every minute in our current digital society, the art of selling and the consumer-salesman relationship have always been fundamental aspects of the human experience and civilization. In his book, The New Professional Salesman, Walter Vieira writes that “The label ‘salesman’ is applied to those who earn a living by selling a product or a service,” (2). He continues, however to discuss that this definition is incomplete because although statistically one in nine Americans are considered to work in sales, in a way, everyone is a salesman. “A doctor needs more than just knowledge of medicine. He needs to inspire confidence in the patient with his warmth and friendliness. He has to sell himself. A lawyer has to put forth his arguments coherently and convincingly. He is selling himself and his ideas,” (2). In order to be successful, we each must sell either ourselves or a product as the best fit for the needs of the consumer. This is especially relevant in today’s society with online product reviews and service recommendations.

In fact, according a National Public Radio interview with Daniel H. Pink, author of To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, Pink believes that the “art of sales has changed more in the past ten years than it did in the previous century,” (Pink). He attributes this directly to the information that is easily available to consumers. Traditionally, the salesman has always had more information than the buyer. However, thanks to the internet and smartphones, consumers can now not only research product information ahead of time, but have it in hand all the time. David Weinberger summarizes this phenomena in his book Too Big To Know when he writes, “Knowledge now lives not just in libraries and museums and academic journals. It lives not just in the skulls of individuals. Our skulls and our institutions are simply not big enough to contain knowledge. Knowledge is now a property of the network,” (xiii). Information has become common property, shared by everyone with internet access. The salesman no longer possesses the ability to prey on the unknowing consumer because with simple search of the internet, the consumer is able to verify the information provided by the salesman, view similar, competitive products, and compare prices of different retailers all at once. Nelson Springer, a shoe salesman at Macy’s in New York City explains, “Shoppers are a lot more conscientious. People know what they want and they want it for as cheap as possible, and they think the place to get that is online,” (Fox).

Since April of 2009, I have been a footwear sales associate at Dicks Sporting Goods. Based on the following research and what I have witnessed first-hand, the expanding availability of information, particularly on smartphones, has had a profound impact on the interaction between the salesman and the consumer.

Convenience of Control

Internet shopping was developed to avoid the annoyances of traditional shopping. Consumers can go online and order the same product that they would get in a store without ever leaving the comfort of home. No more waiting in line to checkout. No more paying whatever price the store demands because of lack of alternatives. No more issues with stores being out of stock for a desired product. And with the wealth of product reviews, ratings, and in depth descriptions provided on the internet, no need for the “sales pitch” from a living, breathing salesman. Human interaction is fading in practice, according to Sherry Turkle in Alone Together. Turkle studies the preference to text rather than call. Most of the her interviewees explain that they feel more “in control” of a conversation that happens through a text message because a real time conversation does not allow each statement to be thought out at the convenience of each participant. Texting also offers people easy “outs.” If the conversation begins to head in an undesired direction, it can be quickly changed, ended, or ignored with little effort.

In the NPR interview, Daniel H. Pink describes the best personality for a successful salesman as that of an “ambivert.” Extroverts are stereotyped as strong salesman but they can fail by talking too much and not understanding the consumer’s needs or interests. Introverts tend to lack the assertiveness to strike up a conversation to begin with. Pink explains that it is the “ambiverts” that make the perfect salesman because they can talk and listen. They identify the needs of the customer and can recommend the appropriate product. An ambivert knows when to give the customer space and when to push and drive home the sale. This whole idea is based on the precept that human interaction is a required part of a sale; a precept that does not exist in the world on online shopping.

Even customers that do enter a physical store often want to forgo the traditional shopping experience. Instead, these customers want to remain in control and research product on their own, without the help of a salesman. To aid these types of consumers, the ScanLife application has been developed for all three major smartphone platforms (Android, Blackberry, and iPhone) and is free to download. The ScanLife app allows the user to scan the barcode on a product at a store with the camera on their smartphone and view product information, reviews, videos, and other related information all in one place without even searching. Some service providers are even including ScanLife as one of the pre-loaded applications on all of the smartphones being sold. Shoppers can view the prices offered at retail competitors without ever leaving the store (“PR Newswire”).

Some online retailers utilized this practice to compete with in-store Black Friday sale prices by offering “mobile only” sale prices at key times (6 am for example) when shoppers would be standing in long checkout lines. To combat this poaching, retailers like Best Buy have resorted to using their own unique barcodes or no barcodes at all on big ticket items (Clifford).

A physical store is most convenient for instant gratification. When something is purchased online, it still has to be shipped which can take up to two weeks in some cases. Some shoppers would rather have immediate access to a new purchase. These shoppers do not necessarily ignore the information online, however. Arguably about half of the phone calls that I deal with while working at Dicks Sporting Goods are customers inquiring about the availability of a specific item they have already seen and researched online. Additionally, I frequently deal with customers that have saved or live pictures of items from our website open on their phones while they are in the store. The store website provides a much larger selection of products than we can stock in the store. We have limited space for merchandise and it has to be neatly presented on the sales floor. The website can utilize central warehouses to store merchandise from floor to ceiling, allowing for a much higher quantity and variety of product. Many customers do not understand that we cannot possibly carry everything in-store that we do online, driving them to believe the stores to be inadequate.

An in-store experience is convenient to buy now, try on, or test a product, but only convenient for making a purchase if the price is right. Consumers now control the retail world, not the salesman.

Showrooming

In his interview with CNN, Nelson Springer remembers, “I had a guy come in six months ago. I spent a half hour with him, trying on four pairs of shoes before getting up and saying, ‘Thanks, now I know what to get when I buy them online,’” (Fox). I have personally experienced this exact scenario countless times. Consumers have begun to treat stores as “showrooms”; places to come try out a product before buying it online for the lowest possible price. For Springer, this is extremely frustrating because he relies on his eight percent commission from each sale. In fact, during the 2011 holiday season, Springer averaged around $20,000 in net sales per week. In 2012, it took him almost a month to hit the $20,000 mark, meaning his net sales were down around $60,000, a $5,000 blow to his paycheck (Fox). While I do not work on commission, I know that many chain shoe store employees do (Finish Line and Footlocker for example). It has gotten to the point that no matter how well the salesman makes the pitch, the customers are still going to purchase products online for a discounted price. Retailers are trying to protect their employees and find ways to combat the sales lost to “showroom” shoppers.

Retailers recognize that online shopping is not without its weaknesses, which are highlighted in the article “The Hell of Online Shopping,” by Delia Ephron. Ephron ordered Christmas presents for family and friends online. Upon placing the order, she received an email saying that one item was out of stock and would be delivered after January 1. She had to call and cancel the order and then re-shop. One package was delivered to her sister in Los Angeles, CA. When her sister opened the package, the cards for each present were buried in the bottom (useless as these are typically the first part of a present that people open) and one card even had her name as “Julia.” The package contained two pairs of shoes (even though she had only ordered one), a men’s pullover, and a pink women’s sweater. None of the contents were gift wrapped despite Ephron having requested and paid for this service and the pink sweater was intended for another friend in the Los Angeles area. When she called customer service to resolve the issue, she had to first dig through a maze of automated prompts to speak with a customer service representative. When Ephron asked about the package that was supposed to be delivered to her friend (that her friend never received), she was told that it had been dropped off outside of the front door of the address provided (a large office building in Beverly Hills where her friend works) (Ephron).

I have personally dealt with two online shoe orders that have been returned to our Dicks location in the last few months. In the first case, the left and right shoes in the box were a full size different from one another. In the second, both shoes were the same size, but they were both left shoes. In each instance, the customers chose to return the items to the store because that was more convenient and provided an instant solution as opposed to waiting during the return delivery period.

This has become the prevailing strategy to overcoming sales lost to showroom and true online shoppers; to combine the strengths of online shopping with the strengths of in-store shopping. Many major retailers are adapting physical stores into extensions of their online operations by offering online ordering from the store (often at discounted or free shipping rates), in-store pickup for online orders (at reduced or free shipping rates and shorter time periods), and allowing for online returns in store (to eliminate the waiting period to correct a problem and provide a human associate immediately to deal with the situation) (Clifford). These are all features offered by Dicks Sporting Goods. Wal-Mart has taken the in-store pickup option even farther by allowing customers to pay cash when they pick up the online order. This has reached an entirely new base of shoppers that ordinarily would not put financial information online but also may not otherwise come into the store. On the other hand, some exclusively online retailers are considering opening “showroom” style stores to allow customers to try on and test product first hand before placing an online order.

The retail environment is constantly changing in response to the continuing development of the online universe. Consumers want control and convenience, two things that cannot always be found at the same time either online or in-store. Has the influence of technology caused a positive change in retail? An informed consumer has destroyed the “predatory” salesman according to Pink, but Delia Ephron sees only the negative implications.

It seems to me — a fact I had completely forgotten — that a Christmas present should be wrapped in pretty paper, maybe with some Santas dancing across it, maybe something glossy and glamorous. Shouldn’t the tag be handwritten? Shouldn’t the ribbon be made of paper that curls when you whip it across a scissor blade? A present should beckon you. Who wants a Christmas tree with a bunch of U.P.S. boxes under it? … Intimacy replaced by expedience.

This is a notion that I believe Sherry Turkle would support. We are sacrificing our human relationships for the control and ease and convenience provided by our handheld technologies and forgetting the benefits of in-person communication and exchange.

Sources

Clifford, Stephanie. "Luring Online Shoppers Offline." New York Times. 04 Jul 2012: n. page. Web. 19 Mar. 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/05/business/retailers-lure-online-shoppers-offline.html.

Ephron, Delia. "The Hell of Online Shopping." New York Times. 23 Dec 2012: n. page. Web. 19 Mar. 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/24/opinion/the-hell-of-online-shopping.html?_r=0.

Fox, Emily Jane. "Macy’s Shoe Salesman Hurt by Online Sales." CNN Money. 22 Jan 2013: n. page. Web. 19 Mar. 2013. http://money.cnn.com/2013/01/22/pf/macys-salesman-commission/index.html.

"New ScanLife Mobile App Brings UPC Barcode Scanning to Top Smartphone Platforms: Android, BlackBerry and iPhone." PR Newswire. 23 Feb 2010: n. page. Web. 19 Mar. 2013. http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/new-scanlife-mobile-app-brings-upc-barcode-scanning-to-top-smartphone-platforms-android-blackberry-and-iphone-85036382.html.

Pink, Daniel H. Interview by David Greene. "Death of the (Predatory) Salesman: These Days it's a Buyer's Market." National Public Radio. 12 Dec 2012. Dec . Radio. http://www.npr.org/2012/12/31/168132488/death-of-the-predatory-salesman-these-days-its-a-buyers-market.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together. New York: Basic Books, 2012. Print.

Vieira, Walter. The New Professional Salesman. Thousand Oaks, CA: Response Books, 2008. eBook.

Weinberger, David. Too Big To Know. New York: Basic Books, 2011. Print.