Impossible world of comparison shopping


Have you ever tried to buy a new washing machine, with part of the process being going to two or more local businesses in an attempt to compare models and prices?

How about a new mattress?

Virtually impossible, isnít it?

One store doesnít carry this brand while carrying that one, and the next store carries this brand without carrying that one.

When they do carry the same brand name, one store will stock the Nautilus line in one and UltraComfort line for the other, and the next store has the Atlantis line and SleepWell line. Nautilus and Atlantis? Same company. Amazingly different set of options and offerings.

Recently, I walked into a store with a friend to buy a new computer. We had a few things we were looking to involve, but were open to everything from an all-in-one to a laptop, just a tower to a complete tower-to-monitor PC package. (Ready for the fun result? OkÖ)

We walked into the area of the store featuring computers. I counted. Seventeen different displays set up. Six all-in-one units, five PCs, and six laptops. A representative greeted us and we explained our needs to him. Out of the seventeen on display, eleven met our specifications. Of those, only one was in stock so that we could buy it and walk out of the store with it at that very moment.

Not kidding. From all seventeen displays, it turned out only five were available to purchase immediately then and there.

We left, went home, ordered a new computer online and it was literally delivered to the front door in less than seventeen hours. (Clicked to complete the order just after 6pm and it was being retrieved from the front steps the next morning at 11am.)

I am stunned by how difficult shopping has become.

Donít get me wrong. The idea of comparison shopping has been impossible for many items for decades. As noted to kick off this essay, one home improvement store will carry a completely different line for its snow blowers than the next one. It goes deeper. When you begin looking over the availability of replacement parts, you find that even the national chains donít carry the same selection from season to season (even when they are the ones that sold you the darn gas grill to begin with).

Itís a nightmare.

And now, weíve seen a new twist come into play. Seems as though floor space and on-hand inventory can be difficult to manage. So, the floor space has little rhyme or reason that you can sort out unless you have a map, a guide dog, three days of supplies and a compass app on your phone. And then, even once youíve selected the product you want, the odds of it being in stock for you might be better if you just flipped a coin.

Itís enough to make you wish for the sanity and calm of haggling over a new car price.

Now, that car thing is a joke. (Ha ha.) But the weird thing is, itís not that far off the mark.

Cars have been changing so fast that we went from wondering about air conditioning and rear window defrost as options into cassette and CD players as standard issue, then blasted past USB ports everywhere and arrived at rear view cameras with dashboard display being added. Our cars have more Bluetooth features than any of us can possibly use, and the result of all this automatic convenience and more is that most people stand around their cars just long enough after exiting them that the remotes in their pockets unlock the doors as they walk away.

How many of you have backed up computer files and pictures and more onto discs? Want to guess your odds of finding a new computer that has any kind of physical drive? (Hereís a hint: Itís not good.)

Iíd be willing to be itís easier to set up my washing machine to send me a text when the current load is finished than it is to find the spot where I would add bleach when I use it.

You may laugh at that washing machine and bleach joke, but years ago I used to start filling up my washing machine with water before adding the clothes. That way I could put in the detergent and bleach and such and give it a chance to mix in instead of hitting the clothes full-force and undiluted. Recently, a friend of mine told me her washing machine refused to let her start a load. She was trying to run in some water first so she could add an additional color-safe bleach alternative without just pouring it directly on the clothes. Machine had a water-saving sensor and kept telling her to add clothes. In the most basic of ways, she was having an argument with a machine because she wanted to fill her washer with some water but the washer was telling her to add clothes first.

Itís a really strange evolution. In my youth, and during the early days of buying things for living on my own, you were encouraged to make purchases before leaving the store. After all, the major items were ones youíd find it difficult to compare against those of the next store anyway. And today, itís difficult because not only do you have to consider the brand available and whether or not the store will be able to help you service them by having the parts in a year or more, there are times when the store wonít even have the products to sell you in stock. Itís like some weird twist on holiday shopping, where quantities donít last very long, and even when they do you might not find that they do what you expect.

I was going to wrap this up with some philosophical investigation into how even as the world is getting smaller, and some information more readily accessible, the less we understand and have available. But thatís not true. Instead, itís closer to the truth to say that people are not only changing the hurdles you need to overcome, theyíre also swapping them out with completely different obstacles.

Itís like the terminology is all wrong. That somehow a confused consumer is the best customer, which is absolutely not true. Iím not ready to toss my hands in the air and blame it on the offerings of todayís world passing me by just yet. Instead, Iím just wondering if itís the same old shell game being played, not as an outright fraud, but just enough to keep us off-balance.


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