Jan. 31, 2012 -- Tell us if this sounds familiar: You're in a store -- perhaps a Best Buy, a Barnes & Noble or a department store -- and you see something you like, but instead of taking it to the cash register to buy it, you pull out your cell phone to see if you can get a better deal online.
Retailers call that "showrooming," and a new survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project finds that versions of it are becoming very popular. Very, very popular.
Pew surveyed 1,000 American adults by phone, and found that in the 30-day period surrounding the holidays, 52 percent of shoppers with cell phones walked into brick-and-mortar stores, saw products that interested them and did at least some research by smart phone. Nineteen percent of them ultimately made their purchases online.
Some other key numbers, quoting Pew:
"38 percent of cell owners used their phone to call a friend while they were in a store for advice about a purchase they were considering making.
"24 percent of cell owners used their phone to look up reviews of a product online while they were in a store.
"25 percent of adult cell owners used their phones to look up the price of a product online while they were in a store, to see if they could get a better price somewhere else."
Greg Sterling, who writes for the website Marketing Land, said 95 percent of purchases are still made the old-fashioned way, by people visiting stores and talking to sales people -- but retailers need to pay attention to the changing landscape.
"They have to think about this holistically," said Sterling in an interview by -- of course -- cell phone. "There won't be just one way to fight back."
"They have to offer immediacy. They have to have competitive prices. They have to offer great service, and they have to do more," he said. "And this is a problem for many stores."
E-commerce giants such as Amazon and eBay have been cleaning up, largely at the expense of big-box stores. The volume stores, over time, have squeezed small mom-and-pop independent stores -- and, in turn, been squeezed by major online retailers.
Have you gone to a store and seen something you wanted but been turned off by indifferent sales people or messy aisles? Makes online buying a lot more appealing, doesn't it?
But shopping in person, especially if it's a pleasant experience, can still trump online discounts. Sterling cited Apple's stores as an example. Certainly, he said, Apple has other things going for it, but its stores are interesting to visit, its staff is well-trained and people don't mind paying more in exchange.
"Service is a powerful thing for people, and they'll reward it," he said.