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Elgan: Find it in stores, buy it online

Mike Elgan, Computerworld | May 28, 2011
Is it right to shop in a brick-and-mortar store, find what you want, then buy it online? If so, here's how.

There. Now I feel better.

The truth is that buying online what you find in stores is an area of perfect grayness. I asked friends on Facebook, Buzz, Quora and Twitter whether doing this was ethical. Most said it's fine. Some said it's wrong. Both views are valid.

My own opinion is that if you're going to do this, do it right.

Until recently, my find-in-store-but-buy-online methods were primitive. I would typically just snap a picture of the desired object and email it to myself. Later, I would be reminded by the e-mail, then use my PC browser to find the best retailer online.

Sometimes, when I had time to kill, I'd fire up my phone's browser and make the purchase on the spot. This was easy with online retailers like, which already has my credit card information.

But now I've discovered a new category of resources that turbocharges the whole process of buying online what you find in local stores.

The best of the lot is something called Google Shopper. It's a free app for Android and iPhone that performs some amazing feats. Just point your camera at the product and click a "Scan" button. More often than not, the app will correctly identify the product by its appearance, or by the barcode if it finds one.

Google Shopper will then list both online and local stores that offer it, along with prices and other useful information. You can even just say the name of a product, and the app will recognize your words and find the product just as easily.

Google Shopper is optimized for media, like books, games and movies. But it does pretty well with other products as well, including groceries.

The free Amazon Mobile app for Android and iPhone does something similar, but works only with books. You just scan the barcode on a book, and Amazon will bring you to a page with book information, and the familiar Amazon buttons to "Buy Now," "Add to Cart" and "Add to Wish List."

Amazon Mobile doesn't let you comparison shop, or identify products that don't happen to be books. But for buying books on Amazon that you find in retail stores, there's nothing better.

Shop Savvy is great with groceries and other random products. It scans barcodes only, and tells you where to buy them online and locally. You can read and write reviews. For foods, it even gives you a "nutrition grade."


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