In my earlier post about Nielsen data, I mentioned that I was going to get a new BBQ this weekend. We had to get rid of our old one several months ago. Our experience in trying to find a particular model in a local store has been interesting and representative of larger issues in shopping and the local online marketplace.
I'm not representative of the larger user population today, but we might have used print yellow pages or a newspaper or simply gone to a local store (e.g., Sears) in the past. Today we started with the Internet with the objective of buying the item we wanted for the best price in a local store.
Over a period of a couple of days, my wife and I used the Internet to compare models and do price research. We clicked on paid and organic links, mainly for navigation. Once the particular grill was identified, one would expect it's a relatively easy matter to find that grill in a local store right? Guess again.
Although many stores that have physical locations near us show the particular grill we want on their websites they don’t actually have the item in the store. They see their websites as a way to reduce their physical inventory and still capture sales. What they don’t understand however is that consumers fundamentally want to buy things and take them home that day. So the Internet isn’t really a big help – although it does identify the potential universe of buying options.
It can tell me hypothetically where I might buy something, but in most cases it doesn’t have local inventory information. There are "proxies" available via ShopLocal, Froogle, CNET and Yokel. Most of this is hypothetical inventory information (available via special order) or on-sale inventory (it may or may not be in the store).
Given that our get-together is on Monday, we don't have time to order it online and have it shipped in time. In addition, shipping a BBQ is potentially very costly. Calling stores, which we did this morning, is generally a terrible and frustrating experience; most salespeople (esp. at the “big boxes”) don't care and are only vaguely invested in helping you on the phone. Consequently, you don't know if the information you're getting is reliable. They can tell you something is there and it may not be the precise thing you asked for; or they can tell you the opposite and in fact it may be in stock but the person has not adequately checked.
Most big box retailers have “deskilled” their workforce in an effort to push costs out of the system and on the belief that people shop price and don’t care much about service. There is some truth to this but it makes for a bad customer experience and ultimately hurts sales.
I checked all the sites and called multiple stores without success. In almost every case I was prompted to order the grill online. Finally, based on my wife’s vague memory that there’s a BBQ specialty store in a nearby community, I did a search on Google for “walnut creek bbq grills.” Based on the description in the text, I clicked the second link, which was for Yahoo! Local. I scrolled and found that the fourth listing (below the fold) was “Barbeques Galore,” which my wife identified as the store she remembered.
I called the store, asked for the particular grill, which to my great relief they had, and put it on hold for later pickup today. The sales guy whom I spoke with was very helpful but he didn’t ask me how I found the store. If he had I would have said, “I did a Google search and ultimately found you on Yahoo! Local.”
The store has a website (it's a national chain it turns out), which was nowhere to be found in organic results. But beyond that site I have no idea where they currently advertise. And unless I go out of my way to tell them about my experience and where I found them they'll have no idea that the Internet was partly responsible for the sale (unless Yahoo! is tracking the number I called, which I don't believe is currently happening).
There you have it: the state of online shopping, offline buying. What a mess!