December 10, 2015 in Smart Money

Will you get better shopping deals online or in-store?

Retailers want to get you to buy something any way they can, so they’re expanding routes to the checkout by erasing the line between online and in-store shopping.

Retail stores are developing “omnichannel” shopping, says Barbara Kahn, marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

Omnichannel shopping

A sales approach that uses multiple channels to provide the customer with a variety of shopping options, whether they’re shopping in-store, online or on a mobile device.

Knowing that customers still want to touch and feel in-store products but also shop online and use the treasure trove of product information found there, retailers are offering apps that let customers surround themselves in an Internet cloud of retail deals.

And, they’re offering links on their websites to what’s available in a physical store.

Here are answers to questions on how to maximize convenience and savings by hopping between online and brick-and-mortar retail stores:

Are prices ever better online than in-store?

Answer: Probably not. “If prices are disparate, that would be confusing to customers,” Kahn says.

Still, “Some retailers have separate back-end inventory systems for their stores and for online,” says John Talbott, associate director of the Center for Education and Research in Retailing at Indiana University. “The price reduction may go to the Web first.”

Bottom line: If you see a price on a particular product online, then head to the store where it’s higher and ask for the online price, says Angela Sanfilippo of AgilOne, a company in Sunnyvale, California, that helps retailers develop multichannel strategies.

It seems like every retailer has an app. Are they worth downloading?

Answer: Apps have different functions and will continue to change as stores innovate.

Currently, for instance, Target’s “Cartwheel” app lets customers scan a bar code to see if there is a discount offer specifically for app users, says store spokesman Eddie Baeb. A Target pilot program is also alerting app-enabled shoppers when nearby items are trending on Pinterest.

Among other functions, The Home Depot app lets customers create their shopping lists, and the “app tells you where (the items) are in the store,” says Home Depot spokesman Stephen Holmes.

Bottom line: “All of this technology can be very helpful for ‘mindful’ shoppers who are aware of what they need and shop for good, sound reasons,” says psychologist April Benson.

However, having enticing bargain information on retail deals on the store aisle that you’re on can spur impulse buying, says Ian Zimmerman, University of Missouri assistant teaching professor.

I check prices from competing stores while I shop. When will retailers match a price if I buy something cheaper elsewhere?

Answer: Some upscale retailers “don’t position themselves that way,” Sanfilippo says. However, many stores are committed to price matching.

Nordstrom spokesman Dan Evans Jr. quotes the pricing policy on the retailer’s website: “We are committed to offering you the best possible prices. We will be glad to meet our competitor’s pricing if you ever find an item that we offer, in the same color and size, available from a similar retailer.”

Bottom line: No harm in asking.

I like to buy lots of items online when there’s free shipping and then return whatever I don’t like in the store. What’s the harm? It doesn’t cost me anything.

Answer: “Chronic returns may get you reduced future offers (in your email box or promo codes on the site) if the online retailer is able to systematically determine that because of the return rate and the purchase behavior of the individual they are unable to have a profitable relationship,” Indiana University’s Talbott says.

Bottom line: Returning online purchases in the store is a customer convenience that stores promote. But it’s expensive for some retailers to put in-store returns back into inventory, says AgilOne’s Sanfilippo. So, shopaholic splurges followed by excessive returns could reduce discount offers.

It seems like clerks are offering to order an item online that I can’t find in the store. Fine, but do I have to pay for shipping or come back to the store?

Answer: Retailers don’t want customers to walk out empty-handed if what they want is on the store’s website, Sanfilippo says. Although policies differ, many stores are aiming to deliver merchandise quickly, and possibly free.

Indeed, the idea of letting consumers view and touch goods but then ordering what they select online is a growing trend, Kahn says. He adds that some retailers, such as Bonobos, allow customers to try on clothing in the store, then will order the item online for them.

Retailers are constantly trying to find new ways to blend the online with brick and mortar, Sanfilippo says. The most recent innovation to advance the omnichannel is Rebecca Minkoff’s “Magic Mirrors,” referring to huge touch-screens that customers in her women’s clothing boutique can touch to see matching products.

Bottom line: Expect store clerks to suggest online offerings more frequently, and some will make delivery free, fast or both.