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BLOG: Find it in stores, buy it online

Mike Elgan | May 28, 2011
Is it right to shop in a brick-and-mortar store, find what you want, then buy it online? If so, here's how.

I have a confession to make, so let me get it out of the way up front. I sometimes shop in brick-and-mortar retail stores, find what I'm looking for, then stand there with my phone and buy it online.

I feel really bad about it. But if, say, a book is $10 cheaper online, and they deliver it to my door in a day or two without me having to wait in line, why would I buy in the store?

I do this a lot with books, but also electronics and even groceries.

I always feel guilty about it. After all, the store has gone through the trouble and expense of finding a location, paying the lease, hiring employees and stocking their shelves. I take advantage of their investment, yet don't contribute with my purchase.

Am I helping to drive them out of business? Am I being a hypocrite for enjoying services I am unwilling to pay for? Am I doing something akin to stealing?

While I ponder these questions, I realize that I'm not breaking the law, or even breaking any company rules that I'm aware of. Retailers (both online and offline) are engaged in a contest with customers to see who can get what they can from the other.

Many companies are happy to lay off domestic workers and find cheap-as-possible labor abroad. If the product I like isn't popular enough, they won't hesitate to discontinue it no matter what I want.

They pollute the airways and roadsides with manipulative marketing without our permission or consent. In other words, they use our space and time and attention. Why can't we use theirs?

Besides, the practice of buying online what you find in physical stores is part of a larger evolution of retail. Progress is good. The market is finding the most efficient delivery system for each category of goods.

Some products, like books and music, are far more efficiently bought online. Others, like clothing, milk and bread are better when bought in real life. The smart companies are doing both, offering the convenience of retail shopping and also the huge selection and discounted pricing of online buying.

If purchasing habits never evolved, we'd all still be buying trinkets from traveling peddlers. Ruthless opportunism by consumers has created millions of jobs and transformed modern life. So when I find things in stores and buy online, I'm not just kicking mom and pop while they're down. I'm also helping the economy.


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