You've heard of letting your fingers do the walking? Now you can let a "bot" do the shopping.
That's "bot" as in "robot," and we're not talking about any mechanical gizmo that will walk up and down the aisles and push your grocery cart for you.
A bot, in the parlance of the Internet, is a computer program that automatically performs a predesigned task in cyberspace.
Now that online shopping is turning into a billion-dollar phenomenon, a few enterprising software developers have begun turning out bots intended to make it easier to find bargains from among the thousands of electronic commerce sites.
In general, here's how they work: You tell a shopping bot what you are looking for, such as a computer scanner. The bot heads out onto the Internet, searches vendor sites that sell scanners and returns a list, complete with prices.
You can learn in pretty short order where the lowest prices are. And you can zero in on your product right away - without having to go through the retailer's opening Web screens.
It sounds like a bargain-hunter's dream, but there are some caveats.
There have been reports that a few online vendors aren't terribly fond of shopping bots. It seems that they aren't thrilled with the idea of being shopped by software - instead of real Web surfers - and are looking for ways to block the bots. That's still a rare occurrence, however.
Also, remember that most of the shopping bots are relatively new, meaning that they don't always work perfectly. But if you're willing to be experimental, the bots available today offer a peek at the future.
Right now, you have to type in your request and click on a search button. One day, you'll be able to ask your computer aloud, "Who's got the best prices on scanners today?" And a few seconds later, you'll get an answer.
Here are several sites where you can download evaluation versions of shopping bot software.
RoboShopper. This may be the most compact shopping bot software available. It did a good job of finding lots of results for common products, such as a computer scanner, but when I asked it to search for something unique - Russian nesting dolls - it produced only one result (www.roboshopper.com).
AltaMax Online Shopper. A drab, utilitarian interface belies the power of this bot. It found hundreds of results for computer scanners and organized them neatly into an easy-to-read list. It also found more than a dozen places where I could buy Russian nesting dolls.
I also used AltaMax to search for Tom Wolfe's new book, "A Man in Full." At Barnes & Noble's Web site, the price was $20.26. At Amazon.com, it was $20.27.
Hey, a penny saved is a penny earned. (www.altamax.com)
Taxi: This slickly produced software has the brightest, most colorful interface of the bunch, but it's not the easiest to use.
It doesn't have a search function, but divides shopping opportunities into a variety of categories. The developers say that, over time, Taxi learns your preferences and eventually takes you where you want to go. (www.mytaxi.com)