It seems like only yesterday that showrooming was at the top of the list of concerns for brick-and-mortar merchants, with analysts, journalists and retailers alike claiming it would be the death of physical storefronts. But as with many retailing trends, the situation is rarely that cut-and-dry. Instead, as more research came to the forefront, we began to see the fuller picture – one that revealed showrooming, the act of visiting a brick-and-mortar store to see the product in-person and then purchasing online from a competitor, was a real phenomenon, but so too was webrooming: the act of browsing for products online prior to purchasing them in-store.

One of the most recent reports to address this idea is the Nielsen Global Survey of E-Commerce, which finds webrooming has actually become more popular than showrooming. The report revealed that 51 percent of respondents said they browse products in-store before purchasing online, while 60 percent said they prefer to browse online before purchasing a product at a brick-and-mortar location.

You can debate how significant 60 percent is vs. 51 percent, or whether 51 percent is still a big threat to the physical store business model, but in my view the debate about which trend is more important misses the boat. The core message is that consumers like to shop across multiple channels in a manner that best suits their individual preferences. Store-first then web or web-first then store does not matter. Instead, consumers see any touch point with that retailer’s name on it as the same thing, and appreciate and expect a unified experience at all points. As John Burbank, president of strategic initiatives at Neilson, said:

“Now is the time to create omni-channel experiences for consumers who are actively using both digital and physical platforms to research and purchase, as increasingly, they don’t make a distinction between the two.”

This is an idea I’ve discussed before – as consumers take an increasingly omnichannel approach to shopping, it’s pivotal for retailers to understand their customers, deliver what they want at every interaction and cater to their current and future shopping behaviors. Instead of trying to pigeonhole consumer shopping behaviors into specific organizational silos, retailers should be looking at the countless options their customers have to view, research and purchase products, and work to create a seamless, positive shopping journey, regardless of what channels they choose to engage with along the way.

By focusing on creating an omnichannel strategy, retailers can forget about where their customers discover a product versus where their customers purchase a product. Don’t get me wrong, I do understand the organizational design reasons for having specific channels and goals for each channel. That kind of focus does drive real results and employees respond well to having a target that they are in control of hitting (e.g. the manager of email marketing gets a bonus based on the revenue email marketing generates.) And it is also true that if you make everyone responsible for everything, then no one is responsible for anything. But frankly, these challenges are the retailer’s problems to manage. The consumer does not care. It doesn’t happen much any more, but do you remember how frustrating it was to bring an online item back to a store from retailer X, only to be told, “We don’t accept returns from online. That is a different group.”? That kind of thinking is focused only on the internal issues of a retailer and not on what the consumer needs. And it needs to stop if a retailer is going to succeed in an omnichannel world.

Whatever the organizational politics, retailers have to understand their consumers’ purchasing and shopping behaviors across any and all touch points, and use that to deliver personalized, tailored communications whenever and however a consumer chooses to interact with that retailer.

Webrooming, showrooming or any other shopping behavior should be embraced – not feared – and be considered another opportunity to show that consumer you understand them and can meet their needs better than the competition.

What do you think? Should retailers continue to focus on the showrooming and webrooming trends? Connect with us on Twitter and share your thoughts.

Visit the Nielsen website to learn more about the Nielsen Global Survey of E-Commerce.