Shoppers who scope out merchandise in stores but buy on rivals' websites, usually at a lower price, have become the bête noire of many big-box retailers.
The trend, known as "showrooming," hurts the bottom lines of traditional stores while benefiting online-only retailers such as Amazon.com, which have the advantage of lower overhead costs and mostly can skirt the collection of sales tax.
To thwart showrooming, Target, earlier this year pushed its suppliers to offer it exclusive products that can't be found elsewhere. It also has quadrupled the number of items available online and is sending special coupons directly to customers' mobile phones. Wal-Mart Stores meanwhile, is emphasizing in-store pickups for online orders—many available the same day they are purchased—allowing customers to avoid shipping fees.
The real hurdle, though, is pricing. Lower prices are one of the main reasons people pick Amazon and other Internet-only emporiums over traditional retailers. If brick-and-mortar stores can't compete on price, it is unclear how successful they can be with tweaks to merchandising and customer service.