Bazaar tactics

Now that prices can be checked online in a tick, how can stores avoid ending up as mere showrooms for Internet sales? Matthew Valentine rejoices in the return of haggling

In an episode of 1980s BBC sitcom The Young Ones, a crazed Alexei Sayle knocks on the door of the central student household and asks if he can use the toilet. Given a negative response, he replies, ’I thought not. That’s why I pissed in your garden.’ Retailers could learn a lot from this.

There are now so many competitors to any given retailer that if one gives a negative reply to a reasonable customer request, the customer is almost obliged to make other arrangements out of personal pride. Gone are the days when being the only shop in town gave a retailer the clout to dictate how transactions are made. These retailers should now accept that they ought to relinquish some control over the prices paid for their products too.

Less than a decade ago my habit of asking for a discount when making any major purchase was considered bizarre, if not downright suspicious, by most of my friends. They are all at it now, happily waving computer printouts at shop assistants to show they can buy their chosen camera cheaper at Amazon. This style of transaction is here to stay.

There are many examples of retailers being slow to react to changing online trends. If you sell white goods, for example, do you expect customers to research fridges online before coming to your store? Or might they visit your store to check size, fit and finish before purchasing from the cheapest website? Increasingly, they use the latter method. This has encouraged retailers to pay more attention to their online offers, but their store designs still see fridges lined up like books on a shelf – not with space for customers to walk around them and reflect on how they might look in the kitchen.

So the growing uptake of mobile devices with Web access could mean a real headache. Not just planned purchases, but impulse ones will be subject to a price and benefits comparison, made there and then on a mobile phone. Like the 1990s cliché, where people barked ’I’m on the train’ into mobiles, the next decade will see them holding up phones in shops, asking ’Can you beat this price?’

This is a perfectly reasonable request. It is the simplest, most basic question that can be asked of a shopkeeper, and one that has been asked of every market stall holder in existence for millennia. Quite why consumers allowed this haggling to end and let retailers set the price is a mystery to me.

Fortunately, the Internet is an incredibly powerful bargaining tool. It shows up the lies retailers peddle when they tell us they are giving us a bargain. It is often nothing of the sort, but consumers now have the tools to demand better.

The solution, if stores are not to become mere showrooms for Internet sales, is to become more flexible on price and to encourage shoppers to make them an offer. Markets find their own levels, and consumers can easily find the going rate – or decide what they think it should be. The challenge will be for retailers to communicate this approach to customers, and to decide how much leeway to allow staff in accepting discounts.

Signage and ticketing will, obviously, need to be fundamentally rethought. Traditional store layouts with staff behind desks might be impractical, and the way space is used for displays may change. It might even be the case that a smaller selection of products will be offered to maximise margins. But giving customers more power to decide on what price they are prepared to pay for a product, or not, is a far more real choice than selecting between 30 variants of the same product.

If an occasional brash shopper gets a terrific bargain, retailers could still benefit from less leftover stock at the end of the season that has to be sold at a loss. And shoppers are less likely to be given a negative reply to a reasonable request, and to want to piss in the retailer’s garden.

Matthew Valentine is a retail design writer

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