December 13, 2013

A solution to showrooming may finally be here


The founders of Estimote. I guess $3.1 million in venture capital isn't enough to buy a head that'll support itself?

The founders of Estimote. I guess $3.1 million in venture capital isn’t enough to buy a head that’ll support itself?

With devices from the new tech startup Estimote already being shipped, bookstores and other retailers finally have a tool to help fight back against showrooming.

Showrooming is the practice by which customers in a store browse books (or anything really, but why would you ever buy anything but books?) but then buy those books online from other less wonderful retailers, either after they’ve left  the store or even right there under the icy death glare of passing booksellers. It is a noxious habit, and one that nearly everyone is guilty of at some time or another.

The problem got a good dose of general attention when Amazon released their blatantly malign showrooming app in the fall of 2011, encouraging customers in stores to stick their sweaty phone-greased hands into the mouths of booksellers everywhere and pull out whatever meager crumbs of sustenance they might find within.

Estimote won’t be able to prevent showrooming, but it can make it less attractive. The idea behind Estimote is that retailers would place their small battery operated bluetooth devices—Estimote would like us to call them ‘beacons’ or ‘motes’, though at the moment they look more like a wad of gum—at various points around their stores. The devices would work in tandem with an app on a customer’s phone. In the company’s example videos and site, the app is assumed to be proprietary to that store, but doubtless more general use apps will soon abound. The Estimote beacons then feed contextual information to the customer’s device as she browses, and, most importantly, customers could purchase the items they see in that store on their phone from that store.

Stores would, essentially, be their own showrooms.

Estimote comes with an impressive tech world pedigree: the idea was fostered in Y Combinator, and as Techcrunch reports, Polish founder Jakub Krzych announced this week that Estimote has just completed a first round of seed funding, taking in $3.1 million from some notable VC firms. This, after what seems to have been the usual startup hiccups in delivery, with the added difficulty of having to manufacture an actual thing. The company has plans to open a third office in New York and is already shipping devices to Macy’s, Apple, and to app developers. While those stores may be most interested in the technology to add a layer of augmented reality to the shopping experience, for booksellers use of these devices will be foremost a defensive move.

Bookstores have been waiting for precisely this technology. It often seemed puzzling that it wasn’t available. Now what remains to be seen is simply how quickly the devices can be rolled out, and what stores will be capable of doing with them. For smaller booksellers everywhere, the investment and expertise necessary to maintain even the most rudimentary ecommerce website is a hurdle. Unless, and even if, these devices and training are distributed by the ABA, it’ll be years before many stores are forced by expectation to examine these things.

Some stores—larger, or at least more tech savvy—could do wonders with them. Not only could the devices add an attractive barrier between customers and Uncle Jeff’s Toilet Paper Emporium, but they seem tailor-made for the use with staff recommendations on books, or to add an expanded list near any display, so that every book in a series might be bought at once, even if only one is on a shelf.

The devices will have dissenters: more chiming from the rectangular yoke in your pocket is not always welcome, particularly in a bookstore. Maintaining their location and data will be one more responsibility around the store. And while the developer kit Estimote is offering for preorders is only $99 for three of the devices, a $30 price tag will still be more than some stores can afford to lose when these things are invariably pried off of walls by curious used-gum collectors out there. On his blog Bruce Sterling cites the clear possible misuse of any sort of adhesive-backed bluetooth broadcasting device.

Even so, and even knowing little about the company’s own expansion plans, these devices and their inevitable imitators do fill such an obvious need, I’d be surprised if we don’t see them in bookstores very soon indeed. In fact, let this serve as notice to the ABA: the time to think about integrating these with the perhaps-finally-relevant Indiebound app is here.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.