Shopping Without Buying

I’m in the market for a new office chair. I’m planning on investing in a good one. After all, you only get one back, and I want to take care of mine. Next to my bed, the office chair is where I spend most of my time.

I’ve done research and read a bunch of online reviews. However, like most significant purchases, I want to test drive some chairs to find the one that best fits my largish frame.

Here-in lies the problem.

Office chairs are commodities. You’ll always be able to buy the exact chair from an online store for a cheaper price than from a retail store. On a purchase like this, the difference could easily be a couple hundred bucks. This is simply down to the economics of virtual stores compared to bricks-and-mortar ones.

The standard wisdom here is to go to a real store, sit in a bunch of chairs and then go home and buy one online for less money.

Zero Intent to Buy

That behaviour–feigning interest at a bricks and mortar store while having zero intent to buy–feels unethical to me. What right do I have to take up the store staff’s time when they have no chance of making a sale?

I’ve discussed this with a few people, and the best counter-argument I’ve heard is that if I never go into, say, the Herman Miller store downtown, then the staff there have absolutely no chance of selling me a chair. To quote my friend’s shopping koan, “you can’t go back to the store if you never go in the first time”. The store also can’t benefit from any positive word-of-mouth I might spread if I have a good experience there.

I should say that there’s a difference between my proposed test-drive, and the passive act of browsing. In that case, you may just be killing time, or otherwise just curious about what a store offers. Me, I’m walking through the door with plans to buy somewhere else.

I’m no saint, obviously, so this is more a theoretical question than a practical one. What do you think?


  1. Is there something else you want that is smaller, with a smaller price differential, that you could plan to buy at the retail store, and then be up front about your chair plans? That might also open up the chance for the salesperson to offer you a deal that might save you money on the combined purchase.

  2. American talk-show host/conservative writer Dennis Prager produced a video on this very topic:

  3. I’m no saint either, but if I were trying to justify it…

    The retail store has the opportunity to match the price (+shipping costs that might be associated with the online purchase).

    Anyway, retail stores operate on the idea of volume. Many people don’t buy (whether it’s because they’re just looking around with no intent to buy, are planning to buy elsewhere offline, or buy online). So, sales people don’t expect that everyone who walks in the door will buy anyway.

    1. And music/movie companies “could” do more to make people legitimately purchase music instead of illegally download it, but they don’t. It’s their product and thus their prerogative to decide how much they will charge for it. That doesn’t make it right to illegally download it because you disagree with their pricing structure.

      Of course sales people know that not everyone who walks into their store will buy, but from a moral standpoint, where do we draw the line as to what is acceptable as behavior in society.

  4. Surely if you go into the Herman Miller store, then end up buying a Herman Miller chair (no matter where from) then that benefits the company and so indirectly the employees of the company?

    FWIW, once you know what you want I’d recommend scoping out the used furniture auction places – lots of companies buy expensive furniture then end up going out of business. Of course this then has its own set of moral issues 😉

  5. Go into the store with a hard copy of the online offer for the chair you think you want. Test the chair. Show the staff the online offer and ask if they will match it. If they say yes, it’s a win-win. If they say no, you can buy the chair online guilt-free.

    But I bought my Aeron on craigslist, so this is a do-as-I-say bit of advice.

  6. A really good salesperson will sell you a chair no matter what your intent is. Worst case scenario you walk out the door feeling like a million dollars because of your experience with that salesperson.
    The salesperson likewise had a personal interaction that may pay dividends later, word of mouth etc

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