A week ago, in response to a new study by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, I devised a few principles brick-and-mortar shoppers should adhere to to be polite:
No entering stores you're not going to buy from.
If you know you're always going to buy online, or at another store, don't walk in the door.
Entering a store you might buy from, on the other hand, is okay.
It would be a bit draconian to say otherwise. You're a potential customer, and I'm sure the store is happy to have your potential business.
Looking up competitor's prices on the internet is okay.
That is, if you know you might buy the product(s) in the store you're in.
Using your phone to do so is not.
Not while you're still in the store. Salespeople can tell you're either looking up competitor's prices or searching for product reviews—you don't look like you're texting and you're standing in front of a product—and although both are okay things to do, you shouldn't rub it in their faces. You can, however, go home to "think about it," and then come back if need be. Or if it's a larger store where nobody notices you're there anyway, you can sneak out to your car to use your phone and then sneak back in.
Calling a friend to ask about a purchasing decision is okay wherever you are.
As I explained in my post, store staff would be "jumping to conclusions if they thought you were calling another store to ask about pricing." Yes, you might be on the phone repeatedly referring to the items in front of you, but you could just be seeking your friend's counsel on which of those items you should buy.
Hang on, what were you saying about going home?
Who is this Solomon Garner asking me to go all the way home only to travel all the way back later in the week? Yes, that's what I want you to do; or rather, that's what I said you can do. You can also choose to be in the dark about competitors' prices, if you think the store's price is reasonable. You can buy the product, and then go home and be happy. This seems like the most practical option, and an experienced shopper will still be able to shop with confidence, without pulling out his or her phone. If you're really uncomfortable with that idea, maybe you should be buying less.
UPDATE 2/15/12 (Post continued after the break): It is also an option to start your shopping at home, using the websites of brick-and-mortar stores in addition to your favorite e-commerce sites. Or, if you prefer, just e-commerce sites; physical stores are valuable in many ways, and I would like to keep them alive (certain ones), but this is a discussion of manners, not of business models. Also, in addition to being able to "sneak out to your car," you're welcome to go to the restroom to use your phone. This deems the car idea pretty moot, unless you have better bars out there. Just keep it in your pocket when you actually have to go, thank you ;)
UPDATE 2/16/12: It has been brought to my attention that it might be harder than I had previously thought to get a sense of prices. For instance, the holiday season might complicate that process. While I realize one can feel like a lot is expected of them during the holidays, perhaps our society needs to have a conversation about changing that. I think the solution probably lies with us. I think there shouldn't be as much pressure on people to find deals.
It just so happens, as I discovered yesterday, that Tim O'Reilly preached the first of these principles, and extended it, in a 2003 essay called Buy Where You Shop. In the essay, O'Reilly recounts a conversation he had with someone* at a specialty computer bookstore in Massachusetts. Online discount stores, this person explained, were dealing a low blow to his business. Customers would leave the store, and on their way out, they would explain that they could get a better price online. O'Reilly explains that when we utilize the services provided by a store, we should also buy at that store, for the sake of fairness to the retailer and in addition, for the sake of buying based on what we value. If we value the services that our local bookstore provides us, we should support the longevity of those services. I should take this time to point out that O'Reilly emphasizes independent bookstores in his essay, but both of his points extend to chains too: you mustn't treat people unfairly, and in addition, at least in my humble opinion, if you value your local ultra-successful chain store location, you should support what you value (if for nothing else, to get that nice doing-good feeling inside).
What are your principles as a shopper and as a citizen of the digital age? Comment in the comments.
UPDATE 2/16/12 (I promise this is the last update): I updated my original post with the following message, and I want to reiterate here: "I know some will consider my opinions overbearing, and some will be defensive of their own habits, but I would hope that people consider every consequence that their digital devices are having on the feelings of others, and not just the obvious ones. And for those of you who are wondering, yes, if I felt the need to look up something online while in a store, I would go out to my car to do it, or to the restroom." Call me crazy.
* Due to a pronoun reference issue in Mr. O'Reilly's essay, it is unspecified who this "someone" is, but the corresponding pronoun "he" in Mr. O'Reilly's essay most likely refers to the owner of the specialty bookstore in question.