A Blog by Jonathan Low


Nov 22, 2016

How To Shop More Like A Holiday Bot

The holiday shopping season starts in earnest on Friday. Herewith, some advice on how to behave more like a shopping bot in order to identify real bargains faster. And hopefully more accurately. JL

Geoffrey Fowler reports in the Wall Street Journal:

This year, I’m sharing my holiday shopping plan, honed from the advice of e-commerce insiders and data firms. It doesn’t require extreme couponing, or even sniffing out Black Friday doorbuster deals—just the command of an army of digital Santa’s elves: apps, bots and smartphone cameras. When websites haul out the virtual holly, it pays not to believe the hype.

When websites haul out the virtual holly, it pays not to believe the hype.
Wait for Cyber Monday? Online discounts on Thanksgiving Day last year were actually 6 percentage points better around the Web, according to price trackers at Adobe . Inventories were far less likely to run out, too.
Depend on Amazon.com? Do yourself a favor and check Google first. Its shopping-comparison site featured lower prices last month for nearly 60% of Amazon’s 750 top-selling products, according to price intelligence firm 360pi. Another study, by ProPublica, found Amazon doesn’t even automatically feature the lowest prices on its own site Amazon says it strives to provide the lowest prices, yet it may promote pricier sellers with good reputations and favorable shipping terms.
Yes, Amazon is convenient, especially if you’ve joined its $100-a-year Prime shipping club. But don’t kid yourself: Prime’s real purpose is to make us complacent Amazon spenders, even when better deals—with free shipping—are a few clicks away.
This year, I’m sharing my holiday shopping plan, honed from the advice of e-commerce insiders and data firms. It doesn’t require extreme couponing, or even sniffing out Black Friday doorbuster deals—just the command of an army of digital Santa’s elves: apps, bots and smartphone cameras.
Find the best price in an instant
On Monday, I was in the market for the mother of all ugly Christmas sweaters—one that lights up. I found one on Amazon for $35, then I popped over to Google Shopping and discovered the same design was $6 cheaper at Sears.
If I’m spending more than $30, I think it’s always worth getting a second opinion. Start with Google, then PriceGrabber or PriceJump on savings.com. And you won’t catch me inside a store without smartphone in hand: Amazon’s shopping app can use the camera to recognize products or bar codes and check prices. Another app, ShopSavvy, can scan barcodes and compare at other big retailers.
These days, Amazon’s strategy is often to move fast to match the lowest price, rather than always be the absolute lowest, says Joleen Wroten, who conducted 360pi’s comparative study. One of Amazon’s key early advantages—zero sales tax—also no longer applies in many states.
Not all sellers in the wild web are as reliable as Amazon. But some offer things Amazon doesn’t. Best Buy, for example, will match competitors’ prices through the holiday season if you call them, and you can pick up (and return) products at the store.
What about shipping? Free shipping is the new normal at many retailers, especially around the holidays: Best Buy offers it on nearly everything, no minimum. There’s also a shipping club called ShopRunner, shared by hundreds of retailers. It costs $80 a year but is free for American Express cardholders.
If you see something you want to buy, but don’t trust the site that’s selling it, use PayPal instead of a credit card.
Insider trick: Open up the same site in a different web browser, or an “Incognito” or private tab. A handful of retailers are sophisticated enough to vary prices by ZIP Code or even type of computer; others may offer a first-time customer discount.
Stalk the best deals over time
Saving money is all about timing, especially online where prices can change minute to minute. My Christmas list includes a 55-inch Samsung TV with a magic remote control. Premium TV prices can fluctuate by hundreds of dollars, so a few friendly bots are helping me know when to strike.
Amazon won’t show you price history or email you a price alert, but a site called camelcamelcamel.com does both. My dream TV made its debut in the spring at $2,300, and has dropped below $1,600. The service will blast me a note if it hits $1,500.
Of course, my search isn’t limited only to Amazon. One of my favorite online productivity tools, If This Then That (aka IFTTT), has free recipes for tracking prices at Best Buy, Home Depot and elsewhere.
Don’t forget the power of the crowd. A site called SlickDeals has members gather all those holiday flyers. I signed up for alerts that will let me know if my TV is among the door-busters.
Insider trick: Log in to a site and load your shopping cart with selections—then just walk away. Sometimes, a hungry retailer will email you an extra coupon to close the deal.
Find what you’re really looking for
I spotted a great pair of neon Nike sneakers the other day. Only problem: They were on somebody else’s feet, not in a store. I snapped a photo and put a visual search engine to work.
I uploaded my snap into the Pinterest app, then tapped the magnifying glass icon in the top-right corner to bring up visual search. I focused in on my shoes and presto... it identified my shoes as Air Pegasus 83/30, from a board called “Amazing Shoes for Men.” I bought ’em.
Google, too, is getting better at visual search. On the website, tap the search bar’s camera icon. On the go, use Amazon’s shopping app or one called CamFind.
Tech is getting creative about helping you home in on great gifts. On Facebook Messenger, I chatted with eBay’s recently launched ShopBot. I asked for a “cool hoodie”: it suggested one emblazoned with “I woke up like this.” You can ask Amazon’s Alexa talking helper for gift advice by category, for instance, “What are the best tech toys for kids this holiday?”
Insider trick: If you’re hunting for a shower curtain, don’t settle for Bed Bath & Beyond. Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest now have “buyable” posts, so you can let far hipper retailers, or even real live humans, curate the best for you. Expect some retailers to offer deep discounts this year, to get people to buy into social shopping.
Discover the impossible discounts
There are products we all want but hope we never have to pay full price for. Maybe yours is a Kitchen-Aid mixer. Mine is a Sonos speaker system. This is where the secondary market of open-box, slightly-used or factory-refurbished items comes in handy.
I’ve got an IFTTT alert set for Craigslist posts in my area from people selling Sonos gear. Queasy about Craigslist? Facebook recently launched the ability to buy and sell merchandise in your network. Screenshot of a recipe on IFTTT (If This Then That) to track Sonos speakers that appear for sale on Craigslist. Photo: IFTTT
It’s also easier than ever to buy from overseas. When I was hunting for my dining room chandelier, I spotted a model I liked at Design Within Reach—but it was three times as large as my space allowed. On Alibaba.com, I found a similar design that was the perfect size for my space, and oh, a couple grand less expensive. Downside: Shipping can take weeks.
Some retailers, including Amazon and Best Buy, feature open-box deals on their websites. Brands like Apple and Vitamix also sell factory-refurbished products directly online, saving you big bucks on like-new products.
Of course, there are risks with buying used or off-brand. You’ll need to confirm the warranty is still valid. But electronics, for instance, have become harder to counterfeit because they rely on internet-connected software.
Insider trick: If you’re on a serious budget, celebrate Christmas on January 15, or at least stick a few IOUs under the tree. Up to 30% of everything bought online gets returned after the holidays, according to software developer BigCommerce. The best deals—like hundreds of dollars off totally new TVs—will be ripe for the plucking.


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