What browsing in a store offers that online algorithms just can’t

TheSunday Magazine8:21What do we lose when we stop browsing

There’s something about browsing in stores that online retailers just can’t replicate, says Toronto author Jason Guriel.

Perhaps you pop into a shop with something in mind. Other times, you might wander aimlessly and come out with a totally unexpected purchase.

“Sometimes I find the thing I’m after, but inevitably there’s something else that I had no clue I was looking for that day,” he told TheSunday Magazine.

“And sometimes — not often, but every now and then — it’s that … random thing that I was not at all looking for that becomes almost transformative.”

Guriel is the author of On Browsing, a collection of essays that chronicle what we have lost to online shopping, a move away from physical media and “the relentless digitization of culture.”

That digitization — especially in an era where online search algorithms, rather than people, make recommendations — is changing our relationship to browsing and the opportunity for chance finds.

Close up photo of smiling man with glasses stands in a book store.
In his book, Guriel reflects on the experiences he had in books and music stores where clerks recommended things he would never have considered. Those purchases often led to new interests. (Tracy Fuller/CBC)

An online search “is always trying to funnel you towards something, whereas when you’re browsing, it’s the other side of the funnel — you’re actually expanding out,” Guriel said.

“They’re digesting everything that other people are searching for, and you’re sort of constantly being directed towards, ‘Oh, you might like this because someone else who was searching for X also bought this.'”

More than consumption

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the verb “browse” became more closely tied to shopping. Before that, it was typically associated with the idea of ​​nibbling or grazing on foods, especially with respect for animals.

But according to Guriel, it was around the mid-1800s that the word “browser” was used to describe a “person moving among books.”

“It came to be associated with [the idea] you’re sort of feeding yourself, like intellectually, and you’re kind of nibbling a bit from these different books,” he said.

For Jennifer Baerg Steyn, owner of the Yellowknife Book Cellar in the Northwest Territories, browsing is a big part of what the store offers the community.

“I find that the majority of our customers … come in to occupy their weekends and browse,” she said.

At the store, which bills itself as the northernmost independent bookseller in Canada, Baerg Steyn and her staff take care to highlight lesser-known titles through thematic displays. Those displays, he said, offer customers the chance to find something they may have never seen without browsing.

Smiling woman wearing a multicolored scarf
Jennifer Baerg Steyn is the owner of the Yellowknife Book Cellar. She encourages customers to come in and browse, even if they don’t plan to buy anything. (Submitted by Jennifer Baerg Steyn)

“More often than not, at least half the books are taken. And they’re books that I can’t imagine that anyone specifically came in with a list of them because they’re usually something that’s maybe more esoteric.”

Guriel argues that browsing is about more than consumption. Shopping, he said, is when you go out to a store needing something specific — bread, laundry detergent, maybe new bed sheets.

Browsing, on the other hand, is a more aimless pursuit. You might enjoy the ambiance of a used book or record shop. Perhaps, like for Guriel’s father, it’s about appreciating the esthetic beauty of a luxury pen without any real intention of buying one.

“I remember, you know, being with him at the old Eaton’s department store, and he’d be looking at, like, Parker pens — like Parker fountain pens — in a glass case,” Guriel recalled. “They’re not that cheap, right, but he took a kind of joy from that.”

Browsing is good for business

The length of time a customer spends in a store or shopping center — what’s known in the industry as “dwell time” — is something retailers think a lot about.

The longer they stick around, the more likely they are to buy something, said Lisa Hutcheson, a retail analyst and managing partner at JC Williams Group in Toronto.

There are lots of ways retailers might improve the experience — such as offering up refreshments, creating unique experiences, building extravagant window displays — but customer service is a key factor, especially in industries that sell books, music and fashion.

Smiling woman with red-framed glasses stands in front of a white background
Lisa Hutcheson is a retail analyst and managing partner at JC Williams Group in Toronto. She says there are efforts to combine online browsing data with in-store visits to get a fuller picture of customers’ cross-shopping experiences. (Submitted by Lisa Hutcheson)

“Friendly, knowledgeable, engaging staff can make a huge difference,” Hutcheson said. “It does want you to stay longer and, you know, it just builds that relationship as well.”

She said there are efforts to combine online browsing data with in-store visits to get a fuller picture of customers’ cross-shopping experiences.

In his book, Guriel reflects on the experiences he had in books and music stores where clerks recommended things he would never have considered.

Those purchases — like one David Axelrod album he picked up years ago — formed new interests.

“When I look at that album that I bought that day, I remember that moment of someone sort of steering me in a new direction based on their love of that particular album,” he said.

Baerg Steyn said he encouraged people to stop by and take a look around — even if they had no intention of buying anything.

“I’m going out on a limb, but I would assume that the average person in an independent bookstore in Canada would be happy to talk with you,” he said.

“We want to be part of the community, so come browse. You don’t have to buy anything. Just get to know us, and through that process, maybe we will be able to recommend better books for you.”

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