Virtual libraries, for many community members, offer the best library experience. With access to vast amounts of content from the desktop, from any distance, supplemented by virtual support, online self-service transactions and extensive help documentation and tutorials, it’s no surprise to hear a community member say “I love my library. I never have to go there”. Although that might be an awkward moment for librarians, we know what the member means, and we should appreciate the value that researchers at all levels derive from our virtual presence. We also know that our extensive virtual offerings cause some community members to question why a physical library is still necessary. One of our great challenges in creating a better library experience is reconciling the physical and virtual libraries, and making them equally great experiences.
Just like libraries, many retailers find they now connect with their customers on two entirely different levels, the physical and virtual. A new trend called “showrooming” has many retailers rethinking the relationship between their onsite and online operations. Just as libraries have found, being able to offer online access to whatever it is the community member or customer needs is a tremendous convenience. Whether it’s finding the scholarly research article you need to finish your paper at 3:00 am or shopping for that perfect sweater without having to drive to the mall, people love the convenience offered by the online world.
The problem occurs when they stop coming to the physical locations, or in the case of showrooming, they only come in order to find a desired product, handle it physically, talk to salespeople about competing products or test its capabilities, only to scan the bar-code in search of a cheaper price (and more convenient) online. Some retailers find showrooming so problematic that they’ve taken to using barcodes that only search their own online location. Therein lies the challenge. Do you take extreme measures to prevent people from using the physical and virtual worlds the way they want and expect it to work, or do you embrace their behavior and rethink the way your organization operates in order to create the ultimate experience for the consumer?
According to the article “Luring Online Shoppers Offline” the answer appears to be the latter – do what you can to create a blended online and on-site experience that seeks to give the consumer the best of both worlds. How do they do that, and are there lessons to be learned by librarians? One common improvement is to allow pick-ups and returns of online merchandise at the a physical location in order to allow consumers to speed the completion of their transaction. There is also an element of designful intent to bring consumers into the store, even if they do most of their purchasing online. As you read the article, it becomes clear that when it comes to the physical/virtual divide, the retail sector is experimenting with ways to give the customer a blended experience.
Many libraries defy the misinformed perception that they are empty shells, relics of times past made obsolete by the Internet. The reality for many librarians is that community members are flocking in to obtain research assistance, seek a quite space with no distractions, use a computer, learn a new skill or to obtain multimedia. It’s also our reality that far more community members are at home connecting to the virtual library only or perhaps they have no need for the library at all. We should continue to monitor the retail sector as it seeks to resolve the online/on-site challenge. I can see some challenging times ahead for academic librarians as they work to identify the right blend that brings online users to the physical facility. We need to imagine and create strategies, as these retailers have, to bring online users on-site, in order to expose them to the physical library and what it has to offer. It just may bring some students and faculty together – and into contact with librarians.