Many years ago, if consumers were interested in finding the best price for a product, they could either call every store in town for a price quote or sift through all their weekly newspaper circulars.

Then along came the internet.

Now, with a few clicks of a keyboard or taps on a mobile device, consumers can compare not only the prices of pool-related goods and services in their local area, but also from any number of online retailers.

But even though the internet may be able to offer lower prices, it can’t replicate the experience of touching or handling a product to see if it truly meets the customer’s needs. Therefore, many consumers have started treating pool supply stores like showrooms — handling the merchandise to determine whether they actually want to purchase it, then whipping out their phones to see if they can get the item at a lower cost somewhere else.

The practice is called “showrooming,” and while some retailers refer to it as the scourge of the modern retailing era, others see it as an opportunity that can lead to higher sales and customer loyalty.

Consumer Behavior

Sometimes customers are bound and determined to find the lowest price for their products, and they don’t care who knows it. They might whip out their phones to price compare right in front of the dealer.

But not all customers are quite so in-your-face about their quest to get the best deal. Sometimes they can be a little sneakier about it. Customers at Dolphin Pool Supply in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., typically price the item online before they head to the store, or they compare prices on their phones while the clerks go into the storage room to retrieve a product.

Then, once the clerk returns, they ask why Dolphin’s prices are higher, says Joe Cimino, president.

Playing the Game

Since you can’t turn the clock back 10 years or kick customers out of your store for using their cell phones, finding ways to deal with this new comparative shopping technique is arguably better than trying to beat the system. The battle often starts with your company’s website — essentially using the internet to fight the internet.

Certain websites may rely on low pricing to entice customers, but local retailers have many other technological techniques at their disposal. Nancy Nelson, owner of Nelson’s HomeTowne Recreation in Janesville, Wis., is in the process of upgrading her site to draw people into her store — and only her store. She packs her site with information about her company’s products and services, and is adding more SEO language to increase internet search rankings. She’s also adding more imagery that will play on customers’ emotions.

“Emotion sells,” Nelson says. The site can be used to evoke emotions of entitlement toward a hot tub or other large purchase, or simply a desire to keep up with the Jones’, she says. And once they’ve made an emotional connection, they’re more likely to buy from you, rather than a competitor.

Dennis Marunde, president of Crystal Lake, Ill.-based Arvidson Pools & Spas, also uses his website to entice customers to buy only from him. The site presents his business as an “omni-channel” company. Customers can order products, request service appointments, in-home sales consultations, and download buyers’ guides from the company’s responsive design website. It helps position the company as a relevant source of both information and products, resulting in increased customer loyalty, he says.

So, you’ve used emotional marketing and technology to get customers into the store and make purchases from your site. But short of cutting off your in-store Wi-Fi, how can you completely prevent customers from making their way to the competition for a lower price? There is no 100% guaranteed method, but many retailers have found that a simple Retailing 101 lesson combined with playing up the benefits of brick-and-mortar stores can sometimes do the trick. When explaining why his prices can be higher than those on the internet, Cimino puts the situation in very plain terms: “We’re a business with overhead. We’re not just a warehouse,” he says.

He then tries to create a dialog about why customers should purchase from Dolphin, playing up the fact that his products often come with a warranty, which doesn’t happen with many online purchases. Some people are sympathetic, but will still purchase online, while others see the value in making a purchase with Dolphin, he says.

Once Nelson’s customers have walked through her doors, she’s discovered that playing up the value of the products and services her business offers is one of the best ways to combat showrooming. When a customer recently lamented that she could purchase one of Nelson’s products for a lower price at Kmart, Nelson reminded her that Kmart could not test her pool water to see if she really needed the product in the first place. She even went so far as to provide curbside pickup to a customer who was having car trouble and wasn’t able to actually come in the store.

“You step up in ways that other stores can’t,” Nelson says. “You will never stop people from buying the cheapest thing on the planet. So if you provide amazing service with an amazing value you’re doing everything you can.”

Retailers also combat showrooming by carrying more products that cannot be sold online. “I try to display brick-and-mortar-only products,” says Zac Nicklas, president of The Pool Boys in League City, La. “That way, if someone is in here looking at a product and wants to buy it online, they can’t.”

Cimino has experienced success with brick-and-mortar-only inventory as well, and hopes manufacturers will provide more inventory options.

If you have the means, there are other ways of addressing the showrooming issue — but it may cost you. Arvidson has an internet price-match policy. The store will match any price on any product found online after considering shipping, tax, fees, etc. The store also offers in-store incentives to purchase extra products with every internet price match. Price matches are not uncommon, but historically they account for less than 2% of his business, says Marunde.

Get Some Perspective

Although you may lose some sales to online behemoths, it’s important to remember that showrooming and the internet are not your sworn enemies. Marunde has found that this phenomenon usually is related to a very small percentage of sales transactions and they are almost always on items priced below $100.

And in some instances, showrooming has even helped Nicklas make a sale. He’s had customers pull out their phones on his floor to find lower prices only to discover that his prices are, in fact, the best. Customers also have researched features, benefits and online reviews of products in his store. Their investigations simply underscore his sales pitch and help them make a confident purchase from him.