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Posted: February 01, 2014

State of the state: Retail

Small businesses bruised by mobile tech

Margaret Jackson

Specialty retailers across the state are grappling with customers taking photos of their merchandise – including bar codes – then shopping the Web for a lower price.

They say the practice, known as “showrooming,” results in decreased sales, and some fear it could mean the end of small retailers that have been in business for decades.

Roxanne Thurman has posted “No Photos” signs throughout Cry Baby Ranch, a Larimer Square mainstay for 25 years. She also ran a sale during the holiday season to attract customers who are increasingly turning to online retailers in search of bargains.

“We had a guy come in and take a picture of a book,” Thurman said. “He came back the next day to buy it. In the interim, he’d gone on Amazon. That’s a sale I would not have had if we had not been running a sale.”

Though analysts estimate that retailers lose as much as $217 billion a year in missed sales from showrooming customers, big-box retailers have grown to accept the practice, with many implementing price-matching policies.

But that’s a tactic small, specialty retailers cannot employ and still expect to make a profit.

Alyssa Hartmann, a sales associate at Goods on Main Street in Breckenridge, says she’s mostly seen customers showrooming in the shop’s shoe department.

“They’ll come in and try them on in different sizes and styles, then say ‘I don’t really want these, but I’m going to take a picture of the entire box,’” Hartmann said. “It’s kind of hard to stop it.”

Goods, which has been in business for a quarter century, has been trying to combat the problem by placing its own stickers over as much of the information on the boxes as possible.

Twisted Pine, another long-time Breckenridge retailer, also is blocking bar codes from customers’ cameras, though employee Dora Meyer says it doesn’t deter them from recording the name of the company that makes the product.

“People are pretty daring,” Meyer said. “They’ll even ask for paper and a pen.”

But not all retailers have encountered problems with showrooming.

In Grand Junction, the owners of Crystal Books and Gifts and Girlfriends say their success largely depends on loyal, repeat customers from within the community.

“Most of my customers shop at my store because they want me to stay there and succeed,” said Cheryl Lucas, owner of Crystal Books and Gifts. “I’m sure it’s happened to me, but it’s rare that I see it.”

Margaret Jackson is an award-winning journalist who spent nearly 25 years in the newspaper industry, including seven years as a business reporter for The Denver Post covering residential and commercial real estate. She can be reached at myjackson7@gmail.com.

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