Person using TheFind smartphone app on Verizon smartphone scanning UPC code at store to check price
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A new IBM (IBM) consumer study , released Jan. 13 at the National Retail Federation's annual convention, hints that the battle between brick-and-mortar retail and online merchants has entered a new phase. And what's precipitating the shift should come as little surprise: showrooming.

"Showrooming" -- where customers make a pit stop at a store to try out a product before ultimately buying the item for less money online -- has become the bane of many retailers' existence. They've seen sales volumes and profit margins eroded by the relentless discounts on Amazon.com (AMZN) and at other major e-tailers.

Now IBM reports that fewer online purchases are being made as a result of showrooming.
Source: IBM
It may seem like a small thing, but there's a lot more happening behind the scenes that's helping to level the playing field between online versus in-store shopping. Retailers, who have long relied on low sticker prices to lure in bargain hunters, are now going the extra mile to beat low-overhead e-tailers at their own game.

Making Friends With the Trend

There's a new dynamic playing out in strip malls and stores across the country. Customers, armed with information culled from Internet product searches, are now pausing before leaving the store empty-handed.

That's because brick-and-mortar retailers are becoming more open to bargaining directly with consumers over the price of many items. Shoppers can get the best price and instant gratification.

A recent New York Times report supports this idea of retailers going all out to get customers to spend their cash in the store. The Times notes that at least 1 in 5 big-box retailers will match prices found online, even if they don't advertise that fact, and a few -- most notably Best Buy (BBY), which publicized its price-matching policy this past holiday season -- will sometimes even undercut online prices. All consumers have to do is negotiate.

So that's what I did. (More about that in a moment.)

Coming to a Mutually Beneficial Arrangement

This is great news for the American consumer, who now has more opportunities than ever to pit revenue-hungry retailers against one another to offer them the best deal for their precious shopping dollars.

All a consumer needs is a proper toolkit -- in this case, a smartphone with a good data connection (nothing is worse for the savvy bargain hunter than the loss of connectivity inside a big store) and a suite of apps to compare prices, find deeper discounts, and help you negotiate once you've found what you want.

A quick Web search for a specific product will often pull up a list of online storefronts offering it. But you needn't stop your bargain hunt there.

Many apps (often listed under the "Shopping" category in each platform's app store) give you the ability to scan bar codes and compare the prices you'll find in one real-world location against local brick-and-mortar competition as well as against top online retailers. These apps may also provide a repository of coupons or a database of recent local promotions to help you maximize in-store savings. Here are a few options to consider:
  • ShopKick (turns the act of shopping into a reward experience)
  • RetailMeNot (SALE) (coupon/promotional code repository and current local promotions)
  • PriceGrabber (bar code scanner and price comparison)
  • RedLaser (price comparison, coupon repository, and current local promotions)
  • Coupons (it's a coupon repository, what did you expect?)
Information is a powerful bargaining chip, particularly when it comes to high-ticket items like electronics, furniture, or major appliances. Salespeople and their managers are increasingly trained and encouraged to negotiate with customers to ensure that the purchase gets made.

Cooking Up a Deal on Cookware

Here's an example of how the strategy worked for me: When I went to my local Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY) earlier this month to find a proper set of cookware for my new apartment, I discovered that Amazon had the best set listed for $200 less than the store price. It didn't take much effort to convince store management to match that price and even ship it for free from the nearest store with available stock -- though they didn't seem particularly happy about it.

But what if you can't find a much better deal online? You can still haggle. If Amazon had offered the set of cookware for only $20 cheaper than Bed Bath & Beyond's price and no other e-tailer was offering a lower price, I would have asked for a price $40 cheaper than that found in the store, with the aim of bargaining my way back to at least a $30 discount.

If they weren't interested in this arrangement, there are still other options -- a recently launched site called Greentoe (it's not yet available as an app) lets consumers negotiate on big-ticket products from the comfort of their own homes. If your local retailer won't accept your offer of 10 percent below the sticker price person-to-person, they might accept it from you through Greentoe, and you might even get 15 percent or 20 percent off if you time your offer right.

It's a Great Time to Be a Consumer

The proliferation of shopping options, along with a similar explosion of shopper-empowering tools, has made this one of the best times in living memory to be a consumer. Take advantage of what's available and you might save hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars each year.

Motley Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter @TMFBiggles. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com, Bed Bath & Beyond, and RetailMeNot. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com and International Business Machines. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.

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Scottilla

The stores say "We will match any advertised price." Then they refuse to match the advertised price. Not only won't I buy it, but it will leave a sour taste in my mouth and I won't consider the same store next time I need something.

January 27 2014 at 10:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
RIVERSIDEHIKERS

bestbuy should learn from this idea keep the customer in the store, FREE COFFEE BAR,
and price match or lower on your items. At the MALL OF AMERICA in Mn the bestbuy store has a huge open area with items at a discount, but it's no discount. REInVENT the area in the rear of that store into a LEARNING CENTER or TURN it into a place for shoppers to relax and charge their phones and free wifi with COFFEE

January 27 2014 at 9:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rjones3824

I work in high-precision advanced manufacturing ...many years. I have also done extensive travel in foreign countries. Lots of big lies are being spread about "slave" wages, "cheap junk", markups, quality, etc. Many of the Asian factories are state-of-the-art, highly automated, with highly trained, highly educated employees and astute managers. They "get 'er done efficiently, make more than the average wages in their areas, often get lots of benefits American workers do not have access to, such as on-site dental, medical, child care, free transportation, or they can rent a "Work-Condo" at their worksite ... many employees send portions of their paycheck to relatives in other countries, so they are not as "poor" as you are led to believe. Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Beijing, are NOT slave-wage areas. Workers do not need cars, because they take super-efficient, very economical mass transit to work. Parking lots not needed in many areas, so the factory can be very efficient with the latest high-quality equipment, computer systems, communication systems, have access to the world's best sources of rare metals, can build and operate very high quality lunch rooms with excellent food at very low, payroll-deductible prices, free gyms and fitness centers, free continuing education classes, seminars, skill certification upgrades....it goes on and on. These people are very sharp, work harmoniously most of the time, have respect for their co-workers, educators, mentors, trainers, and managers. To me, it is a no-brainer to have lots of products made overseas. Some items (large aircraft and huge trucks, road construction equipment, etc.) should be done in USA, but not consumer electronics, computer peripherals, Smart phones, TVs, Cd / DVD players, video games, speakers, hundreds more items. U.S. retail businesses can do a lot better in dealing with customer service .. if they cannot compete on price, then how about offering great customer service and no-BS return policies ? How about training their employees to respect customer's questions ? How about not bashing Amazon ? Best Buy had lots of their own employees ordering from Amazon ... I knew them. Best Buy finally realized this and begin to offer internet price matching, and their biz improved a lot. Guitar Center did same thing, great results. I needed a vacuum cleaner belt and beater brush, went to my local Vac-guy and asked for a price check of the items ( I had already got a price from Amazon's website, but did not mention it) .. this idiot quoted me 3x for the belt, and 4x for the beater brush !!! THEN, he said he could order it right away, but there would be a shipping charge and sales tax added to my price !!!! I said "Bye" ... went home and put in my Amazon order in less than 10 minutes, which qualified for free 5-8 day shipping ... and it arrived at my mailbox in only 4 days !!!!! Yes, I love Amazon !!! Many orders later, from Amazon, and I have zero complaints :-)

January 27 2014 at 4:28 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
armstrongrainman

i run a retail buisness that i have spent 12 yrs at, and in that time i have seen the internet destroy my profits immensly. big companys purchase bulk and sell at5% over cost on the internet. why should i spend my money to make 2.50 on a 50.00 item? if you come to my store with a internet price i tell you to buy on line! if you want to support a local small buissness then i will give you 10to20% off retail and thank you for your buissness. we need a MAP price among suppliers( minimum advertised price) so small buissness can compete.if buissness sell under MAP price,no more goods will be supplied to you.

January 26 2014 at 6:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to armstrongrainman's comment
Scottilla

And evidently you've never been a customer. If a store tells me to shop someplace else, I probably won't be back next time.

January 27 2014 at 10:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
salmo60

When I am shopping for a particular object, say a new TV, I always print the price from an online shopping sight and head to my local Big Box store. I ask the sales clerk if they will match the price because if they do, I will buy it on the spot. It is amazing how quickly they will make the deal. I have been doing this for 10 years or so. Paying retail is so foolish.

January 26 2014 at 5:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
talari

Cars would be cheaper too if we could cut out the 35% hike the dealers add to the products.

January 26 2014 at 10:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mark7746

After the brick and mortor stores go the way of the manufacturing industry. For that 50 bucks you saved by going to Amazon, you may be applying there for 10 bucks an hour after you loose your job, from the economy being taken over by technology and the internet. Its just a matter of time.

January 26 2014 at 12:03 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
jwyola

Ahhhhh...someone is finally returning competition to retail establishments. The marketplace triumphs again; a situation those in Washington D.C. might do well to observe.

January 25 2014 at 2:27 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
nucleansolutions

Best buy is sooo over priced, why bother going there.

January 25 2014 at 1:06 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
petpetdon

If places like Best Buy actually had service the people wouldn't shop on line. Most of their employees are just warm bodies trying to prevent shoplifting. The are not educated on the products and what they do. The people in the TV and component section only want to up grade you on cables and accessories.

These brick and mortar stores need to realize that the internet isn't going away. They need to provide real customer service, answers to questions and after sales service if they want to survive.

I can order anything on line and know that it will arrive a short time later. No need to deal with uneducated, sloppy sales people. No need to drive to the store and waste time and gas.

January 25 2014 at 11:23 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply