When it comes to electronics and big-ticket items, it’s assumed that while consumers may want to inspect merchandise in person before purchasing, they’ll ultimately find the best prices online. That’s what “showrooming” is all about. But what about smaller everyday purchases like, say, erasers, markers, construction paper, and other back-to-school staples? Are they cheaper when purchased online as well?
Actually, no. According to a new study from StellaService, a customer service rating firm, indicates that just the opposite is the case. On average, consumers will spend less by taking the old-fashioned approach of heading out and shopping in actual physical stores.
The study matched up online versus brick and mortar, evaluating several distinct parts of the shopping experience. In several categories, online was obviously superior. The average shopping time for a list of 13 basic back-to-school items was just 10 minutes online. Shopping for the same items in an actual store, meanwhile, ate up 30 minutes, and that didn’t include travel time.
On the other hand, the “in-store shopping experience enables shoppers to walk away with items in-hand, while online orders took an average of four days for delivery,” the study states. So, if you’re keeping score at home, shopping online is faster that shopping in physical stores, but shopping in physical stores allows consumers to get their hands on goods faster. This news will come as a surprise to, well, to no one whatsoever.
What may seem genuinely surprising, however, is that online shopping, often the de facto route for consumers seeking the lowest price, wound up costing more than hitting actual stores. The average price paid to complete the study’s 13-item sample shopping list in-store at retailers such as Office Depot, Target, Staples, and Walmart was $31, compared to $53 for online orders. Shipping costs, averaging about $10, accounted for some (but not all) of the difference.
Why is it that physical retailers seem to be more willing to compete on price for back-to-school goods? And why do e-retailers seem more apt to compete on price for electronics and big-ticket items than they do when it comes to mundane, inexpensive items like markers and construction paper?
The explanation may come down to the idea that consumers use online shopping for very different purposes, depending on what they’re shopping for. The typical consumer today who is trying to get back-to-school shopping completed online is probably doing so because he or she wants to get the process over with asap. This isn’t a price-sensitive shopper. Paying a few bucks extra is fine, so long as it’s over and done with quickly. It’s this type of shopper, along the minimal markup to begin with on cheap goods like markers and glue sticks, that gives e-retailers justification for charging relatively high prices.
As a contrast to the online back-to-school shopper, a consumer in the market for a TV or home theater system will head to the web for a very different, though equally specific purpose. Few shoppers want to get the process of buying such a product over and done with as soon as possible. That’s not the primary motivation anyway. Once they know what they want, the goal is to find the product for the cheapest price possible—and the Internet serves as quite the handy tool in reaching that goal of spending the least money.
Physical retailers, meanwhile, have good reason to keep prices low on the many back-to-school goods lining their store shelves. For one thing, low prices can be used effectively as “loss leaders” that attract shoppers into stores—where they may be tempted into making impulse purchases that are highly profitable for retailers and have little or nothing to do with back-to-school season. For another, while some in-store shoppers may want to get their back-to-school shopping done with asap regardless of price, many others are price-sensitive shoppers. They know that dozens of stores stock notebooks, pens, and calculators, and if they don’t see a price they like, they won’t bite. Physical retailers won’t get these shoppers to buy unless their prices are sufficiently low.
In addition to the eye-opening price differential comparing online vs. brick-and-mortar, the tests conducted by Stella Service revealed some interesting, occasionally annoying quirks encountered when e-shopping with major retailers. A single order of 13 items placed at Walmart.com, for instance, was shipped in five different boxes over the stretch of eight days, which hardly seems like the most efficient method. By and large, shoppers loved hitting the physical aisles at a Target store for back-to-school goods, but were frustrated at Target.com, where they couldn’t find staples such as a box of blue ballpoint pens.
Finally, unless you’re shopping for your student’s entire class, it’s probably not a good idea to gather back-to-school goods at Costco.com. Why? They don’t call Costco a bulk retailer for nothing: The minimum online order for ballpoint pens was three boxes.