From Canyon To Cove: 'Shopping' in local stores, but spending online

Around this time of year, we always like to remind folks to "shop local."

It's the most important time of the year for merchants, the time that can make or break a shop. Laguna Beach is proud of its small-town feel and a lot of the reason for that is the mom-and-pop retailers that offer great merchandise and a personal touch.

Small retailers are facing a difficult economy, and every sale is precious to them. That's why I was shocked to hear this week that some shoppers are "shopping" the local stores, but then going online to buy merchandise that they select (and take photos of) in the stores.

Alice Browne of the Shoe Cellar on Forest Avenue says she noticed this new trend around Black Friday and Saturday. Groups of shoppers came in to the store, tried on a popular boot brand, took photos with their iPhones of the boots they selected, and left the store without buying anything.

Not that they weren't intending to buy the boots they tried on for size. They were just going to buy them online, apparently thinking they could get them cheaper (yet they would have to pay shipping costs, so who knows what was in the minds of these "savvy shoppers").

Incredibly, these "faux shoppers" announced to the shoe store sales staff that, having made sure they found the boots they really wanted in the size, style and color they liked, they would be logging on to buy, thank you very much.

"They are using us to get personal service and be able to touch and feel the merchandise," Browne said. "My staff has a high level of professionalism, and we have excellent fitting services."

Those services are essentially being stolen when faux shoppers use them without the intention of buying anything in the store.

And they weren't the only faux shoppers Browne has noticed during this holiday shopping season.

"One woman came in and tried on 10 to 12 pairs of shoes," she said. After a lot of work on the part of the sales staff to find the exact right shoe to please this fussy lady, the faux shopper announced that she was done; she was now ready to buy — from an Internet retailer.

Two other groups of shoppers had the same idea. They "shopped" Browne's merchandise, using nearly an hour each to find the exact pair of shoes by a top shoemaker in the size and style that worked for them. Then they left the store, only to return later and slyly ask for the style numbers of the shoes they intended to pay for — online. The salesperson declined to give the information.

"Maybe they could find them cheaper, but [the footwear] could be counterfeit," Browne said.

Browne is now worried that this trend is spreading. While sales were good over Black Weekend, they have since plummeted, she said.

"Online [retailing] is hurting us," Browne said. While brick-and-mortar stores pay hefty rents to be in high-traffic locales like Laguna Beach, anyone can put up a website and open a PayPal account for practically nothing.

Online shopping is convenient, but you give up being able to actually see what you are paying for until it arrives in the mail. So apparently some "super smart shoppers" have figured out a way around that.

It's just galling to think that some people would try on shoes or clothing, take up the time of a salesperson who is trying to earn a living, and then spend their money on the exact same merchandise online.

It's just wrong.

This year, please shop local — and spend local. And tell your friends.

CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 302-1469 or cindy.frazier@latimes.com.

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