Why are stores charging customers to browse?

Two very different retailers take heat for -- really -- asking customers to pay to shop

Topics: Consumerism, Retail, Vera Wang, Celiac, Gluten-free,

Why are stores charging customers to browse? (Credit: Kzenon via Shutterstock)

In case you needed another reason to just stay home and order everything off the Internet – how about two news reports in one day of retailers charging customers merely to come in and browse?

Over the weekend, sharp-eyed posters on Reddit pointed out a sign in the window of the Australian gluten-free grocer Celiac Supplies warning that “As of the first of February, this store will be charging people a $5 fee per person for ‘just looking.’ The $5 fee will be deducted when goods are purchased.” No mention, by the way, of a refund if a customer leaves empty-handed.

Meanwhile, over in China, overrated bridal gown designer Vera Wang has celebrated the opening of her new wedding boutique by announcing that “every potential customer at the Shanghai store will be charged 3,000 yuan ($482) simply to try on the gowns for sale.” Shoppers have also been scolded that they should give the store “several weeks” to get an appointment, when they will then be allotted just 90 minutes to try on clothes. Seriously, shoppers, it’s called eBay, and you can ogle all day long for free there.

Of course, it’s not that simple. What those unlikely comrades Celiac Supplies and Vera Wang both know is that despite the ease of online shopping, humans still enjoy the experience of in-person shopping. Retailers understand the social and sensual aspects of shopping. Our senses enjoy a deluge of colors and scents – which is why the produce is the first thing that hits you when you walk in a supermarket. They know the fuzzy sweaters need to go right where you can see them when you walk in too, so you can fondle them. As University of Alberta professor Kyle Murray once explained, “The physical space of a store, and the situation people find themselves in as consumers, has a very strong impact on what people buy.”

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But trying on a dress or shaking a box of gluten-free biscuits doesn’t always lead to full shopping consummation. As Consumerist points out, vendors are increasingly concerned with the practice of “showrooming” — scoping an item in a store and then ordering it more cheaply online. In its off-putting sign, Celiac Supplies states, “There has been high volume of people who use this store as a reference and then purchase goods elsewhere. These people are unaware our prices are almost the same as the other stores plus we have products simply not available anywhere else.” Meanwhile, designers like Wang – who also bans customers from taking photographs in her Shanghai shop – are becoming aggressive about the need to “protect the copyright” of their wares from counterfeiters.

It’s no doubt frustrating for an independent store owner to deal with customers who wander in, pet the merchandise and then give their money to somebody else. They don’t even have to leave the store to do it – they can just make a one-click purchase while they’re sniffing through the aisles. Paco Underhill, author of “Why We Shop,” stated six years ago that online shopping has “changed the rules” of consumption — and it’s only intensified the ways in which we stalk our merchandise since. But you can’t make a sale at all if you’ve turned off your shoppers before they even walk in the door. As Redditors put it, there’s not much point in being “so incredibly ignorant, self defeating, and hostile to potential customers” unless maybe you’re just “desperate to go out of business.” And on Daily Finance, Matt Brownell noted that an obnoxious, distrustful approach is all but guaranteed “to turn off a lot of potential customers who had no intention of showrooming, but aren’t about to step into a store that forces them to pay an entrance fee if they don’t find anything they like.” And whether you’re a fancy dress designer or purveyor of spelt-based treats, you ought to know that. The customer isn’t always right. But in an era when the customer has a world of other shopping options, if you’re lucky enough to get one in your store, why wouldn’t you want to welcome that person — instead of shaking him or her down?

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

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