Many holiday shoppers this year are carrying powerful bargain-hunting tools: smartphones or tablets.
With instant price-checking apps, smartphones have spawned a trend called showrooming. That's what happens when a shopper visits a store to try a product and then uses the phone or tablet to find the best price online.
A few years ago store managers considered showrooming a threat. Now many retailers regard showrooming as a golden sales opportunity.
Spokane's Huppin's HiFi, Photo and Video is one; others are big, national chains such as Best Buy.
Murray Huppin, president of Huppin's and its online OneCall store, said his employees now see showroomers as a chance to win a new customer because once a smartphone shopper starts comparing prices, he or she has signaled a strong readiness to buy.
Best Buy, which one survey identified as the No. 1 location nationwide for showrooming, created a company policy empowering its sales teams to do what it takes to get the showrooming consumer's store purchase.
In addition to cutting prices to match competitors, Best Buy tells its sales staff to focus on personalized service and free shipping if the item isn't in the store.
"Best Buy has completely embraced showrooming," company spokeswoman Shandra Tollefson said. "We see those customers in the store as ours to lose."
Some retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Target, have created their own apps, meant to help shoppers find coupons or special deals inside their stores.
The majority of showrooming occurs inside consumer electronics stores, and e-commerce analysts say the practice is on the rise. One firm, Aprimo, says showrooming will surge over the next two years; it estimates only a third of all smartphone users have not yet discovered the various apps that help find bargains.
Tony Fryman, who helps run a Spokane technology company, has downloaded ShopSaavy and Red Laser to his iPhone. Both are shopping apps designed for showrooming.
Such apps either scan a product barcode or the front of a package, then search the Web for competing prices. One app, developed by Amazon, shows the price of a product on its site and lets the user buy it instantly from the phone.
Fryman said he's a showroomer because he's both a geek and a competitive bargain-shopper.
For example, he said, he looked at a pair of outdoor speakers for his deck at a local store. Then he looked on his phone and found -- and purchased -- the same item priced $25 lower online.
He considers himself a "buy local" consumer, but he said when he finds items costing $20 less online, thrift trumps local loyalty. "If the price is anywhere close, I will buy from the local merchant," he said.
Huppin said he and his sales teams follow guidelines to help showrooming customers realize they can get a good deal in the Huppin's downtown or North Division stores.
"If a customer is showrooming, our attitude is that's fantastic," Huppin said. "They came into our store, and that says to us, they want to buy."
Huppin's even provides online kiosks inside its stores to help people who don't have a smartphone check competing prices.
If a consumer finds a legitimate lower price, Huppin said his team is prepared to find a way to make the sale.
"This is customer service in the present day," he said. "In the old days a guy would go from store to store (to check prices). Now with the convenience of technology, the consumer can bring those other stores along with him."
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