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

Jason 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."

Author Jason Guriel explores why having a look around can feel special

Person wearing a brown leather jacket stands in a book store, holding an open book closer to their face.

The Sunday Magazine8:21What 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 in 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 The Sunday 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 smiling man with glasses stands in a book store.

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 expanded 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 to 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, she said, offer customers the chance to find something that they may have never seen without browsing.

Smiling woman wearing a multicoloured scarf

"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 centre — 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 J.C. 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

"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 experiences he's had in book and music stores where clerks recommended things he never would 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 she encourages people to stop by and take a look around — even if they have 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," she 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."

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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