Target trains the bull’s-eye on showrooming

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MINNEAPOLIS — As a Target “beauty concierge,” Chelsea Mathison prowls the cosmetic aisles at the retailer’s Nicollet Mall store, sweetly asking shoppers if they need beauty tips and recommendations.

The pixieish clerk seems an unlikely frontline warrior in the Minneapolis-based retailer’s effort to address showrooming — where consumers fiddle with products in stores, only to surf their smartphones to see if they can buy the items cheaper somewhere else.

Amping up customer service in key product areas like beauty is one way Target hopes to meet the fast-growing showrooming trend, especially in the crucial holiday shopping season.

Casey Carl, Target’s president of multichannel, declared in a widely read essay on Target’s website that he loves showrooming. Well, he qualified, as long as Target books the sale.

Devising a strategy to do just that means embracing a “utopian” version of Target where consumers seamlessly access bull’s-eye merchandise in stores, on the Web, through social media and via smartphones, Mr. Carl said in an interview.

Amy Koo, senior analyst with Kantar Retail in Boston, said that “obviously, the elephant in the room is Amazon,” the $61 billion online marketplace. “In the last year, there have been a lot of adjustments by Target to counter the Amazon challenge, a lot of initiatives, some of which have not been fruitful, but it’s a good start,” she said.

A study by Deloitte Consulting concluded that too many retailers dismiss mobile applications that may spur showrooming as a way to simply drive revenue to their websites. With up to 21 percent of total retail sales expected to be mobile-influenced by 2016, “Store-based retailers should consider mobile as a strategic imperative because it affects the entire business,” the report says.

The way smartphones drive commerce is a big-money issue, too. In the next three years, up to $752 billion in retail sales nationwide are expected to be mobile-influenced. And, because smartphone ownership is significantly higher among consumers who are 25 to 34 years old, their use of mobile apps while shopping will deeply inform their buying habits as they mature.

Mr. Carl concedes “it’s still very early in this revolution,” and different strategies need to be vetted both in stores and online, all of which are aimed at encouraging showrooming in such a way that benefits Target.

To that end, Target began offering free Wi-Fi in stores last year, and it’s rolling out in-store pickup of online orders to its 1,800 stores (meaning free shipping).

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