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I'm looking for ways to find brick&mortar stores where I can buy a given item in person, in a given city. For example,

Q: Where can I find kale in Cancun? (A: at Chedraui)
Q: Where can I buy a Lenovo X1 Carbon laptop in Barcelona? (A: nowhere, and not with a US keyboard layout anyway)

So far I'm aware of three ways to discover this kind of information:

  1. Apply to join, then ask on the Facebook group for the location, and hope someone is familiar with the specialty item. In some cases, you can search the group before you apply, but Facebook groups are terrible at sharing knowledge with the rest of the world - most are private, and not indexed by search engines. This sort of worked for the "Lenovo laptop in Barcelona" question, by following one of the answers.
  2. Search for the item on Google Shopping and painfully weed out online store, stores that don't have local inventory etc.
  3. Search on Google Maps and essentially hope for keyword spam/SEO in the names of businesses (e.g. "Cell phone fix Apple Samsung Huawei").

Online stores would be a second choice, because:

  1. In some countries you can't buy anything online without a local identification number. In Colombia, I couldn't buy stuff from MercadoLibre for the life for me. In Brazil, you need a "CPF" to order anything (to the point that online generators of fake CPFs exist) etc.
  2. It won't arrive on time. As a traveler you may not have the same address for very long and you don't know how long your item will take to reach you. That applies to online retailers with a physical presence, where you could pick up the item in store but the shipping time may vary widely. In the "Barcelona laptop" case, my laptop was stolen on my way to Barcelona, and I was staying there only one day.
  3. Your credit card might not work online. For the Barcelona X1 Carbon problem, I found a Spain retailer, but they rejected every single card I tried. When I asked a Spanish friend to purchase the laptop, the retailer accused him of phishing (!?) and demanded a copy of his passport and credit card to be sent, via email.
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    Are you asking a general question or one particular one (i.e. laptop in barcelona) ? – Max Nov 17 at 18:09
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    I read the question as asking for a general strategy for buying a specialty item in an unfamiliar city while traveling, with kale and the laptop as examples. Is that correct? – Patricia Shanahan Nov 17 at 18:12
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    In a lot of cases, you don't get particular branded item here in foreign shop. The products are simply not marketed that way. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Nov 17 at 20:50
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    Joining a Facebook group seems very circuitous. Amazon is available in Spain, and would have been able to deliver you a laptop the following day, to wherever you were staying or to one of hundreds of pick-up points. (Also almost every laptop you buy in Spain will have a Spanish keyboard layout, which you probably don't want.) – Aaron F Nov 18 at 10:42
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    If Google lacks sufficient information on the local businesses, the fallback would naturally be the things we used before Google... you know, phonebooks, yellow pages, classifieds, local advertisements, etc. Or just ask around. – J... Nov 18 at 13:15

10 Answers 10

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As you've mentioned in your question, online searches work best when you know the name of the store you're looking for, or what kind of store is likely to carry your item. I recommend instead you talk to a person.

If you're staying at or near a hotel, hotel staff are your first choice. The front desk, for example. These people probably live nearby, or are otherwise familiar with the area. They may know the name of the "foreign food store" where you can get peanut butter or something else that is exotic in your location. Or the name of the electronics chain, or the mall in town that has all the computer stores. You can walk into any hotel and talk to the front desk staff as though you were staying there (I've done this to get a cab in bad weather, for example.)

If you are a long way from a hotel, or you try them and get no luck, go looking for more humans who speak English. Staff in a coffee shop, perhaps. A library might be a gold mine. Look on the airport's web site to see if they have an information desk with a phone number and call them.

Still no luck? Go to one of your near misses. A food store that doesn't sell kale may at least know what it is and where you can get it. A hardware store than doesn't sell the odd part you need may again know the local name for it and a store that might have it.

After all of that, you will at least have gained some local words and names to make your online searches better. But I think it's more likely you will have found what you seek, or realized it's not obtainable.

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    You can walk into any hotel and talk to the front desk staff as though you were staying there — is that entirely ethical? – gerrit Nov 18 at 8:22
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    the way I look at it, all the hotels in the world are part of hotel-land, a parallel existence of sorts. As a person who stays in hotels, I stay in hotel-land, and support the idea of hotels (eg I never use Airbnb.) I treat all the hotels as sort of siblings in that larger entity, and so I will get help from the front desk of another hotel, just as sometimes I won't ask my own front desk for anything. I feel it works out overall. If you never stay in hotels and aren't part of that ecosystem then perhaps it might be wrong to pester random front desks. – Kate Gregory Nov 18 at 8:35
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    @KateGregory out of curiosity, have you checked with hotel staff if they agree with your hotel-land view? (I personally don't, it would be akin to asking a random computer store for help because you buy your computers in shops) – Diego Sánchez Nov 18 at 10:21
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    that's my experience. If it bothers you, you could always tip them. Even say "I'm not staying here, but..." when you ask them, and then afterwards thank them and give them $5. I can't imagine asking would work at all -- I would fully expect hotel staff to tell me that anything I ask is "perfectly fine, yes of course ma'am no problem at all we'd be happy to" even if they detested whatever I was asking about. – Kate Gregory Nov 18 at 13:09
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    In higher end hotels, it's actually the job of the concierge to provide this service for you. If they don't know the answer right away, though, they will ask for you room number so they can call you back once they have the information. If you have a high-end credit card, it may also provide a similar concierge service. – jcaron Nov 18 at 15:49
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Use your credit card's concierge service, if it's available to you.

At higher credit card tiers Visa, MasterCard and American Express all offer concierge services which can help you locate hard to find items, get hard-to-obtain dinner reservations or event tickets, and overall help with many issues you might run across while traveling. Just call or email the concierge and explain specifically what you need. This is available with Visa Infinite, MasterCard World and World Elite, and American Express Platinum cards.

  • Note that certain high-end cars like BMW also offer a concierge service, though it is not very likely that you'll have access to such a service while traveling in a city. – Nzall Nov 20 at 20:41
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This is exactly where a global network of Virtual Assistants come in handy, there are many many of them giving a global reach but local knowledge.

DISCLAIMER: I am the founder of such a company so I dont want to come across as pitching my services here on this site by posting links

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    If you'd like to post your link, but make it very clear that it's your site, it's considered ok if it's relevant. – Mark Mayo Supports Monica Nov 18 at 1:28
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    or even better, posting several such links. – Franck Dernoncourt Nov 18 at 4:03
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    Is travel.se not such a network? – user253751 Nov 18 at 10:28
  • @user253751 Network? Yes. Assistant? Yes. Virtual? I hope not, though the speed and quality with which certain people answer on certain stacks does sometimes make me wonder... – T.J.L. Nov 20 at 18:07
  • @T.J.L. I hope the "Virtual Assistants" that Matt runs are also not AI. – user253751 Nov 20 at 18:20
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Based on my own experience I'll still stick to Google, unless you are willing to pay more or have less of a variety.

I find that different concierge services or asking in groups and forums will be give you answers which are highly biased towards places they have used once, had one good (or bad) experience or get some commission or benefit from

painfully weed out online store, stores that don't have local inventory etc.

painfully is relative, it took me a few minutes to "find a laptop in Barcelona", and I had a more difficult challenge since I searched fro outside of Spain.

You will have bigger local inventory problem if you use "manual" search since many online sites can give you some sense about the local inventory.

As the thing you are looking for becomes more exotic simple search will take you further and faster, to get better results use the correct term in the local language, Google translate and other translation services will help you with that. So instead of "kale in Cancun" search for "comprar col rizada en Cancún"

  • The level of pain may depend on whether you have a fast internet connection, a fast device with a large screen, etc. — things which might be less likely on holiday. Having to translate would also significantly complicate things, both for the search terms and for the result pages. – gidds Nov 18 at 12:50
  • The level of pain increases a couple of magnitudes if you're in China - no google maps, no google translate, etc... – pipe Nov 18 at 16:58
  • It also depends on the items you are trying to find. While one would expect any retailer selling electronics worth their salt to have an online catalog, find some specific food item/souvenir etc. might be much harder (i.e. something that people generally don't buy online). – Dan M. Nov 19 at 13:11
  • @pipe this is not true, Google translate is not part of googles blocked services in China, it can be used without issues for years already – Matt Douhan Nov 20 at 23:40
  • "a laptop in Barcelona is easy. I was looking specifically for a Lenovo X1 Carbon, and only had one day in Barcelona. – Dan Dascalescu Nov 26 at 3:41
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As long as you're in a country where they have a presence, Amazon. (Note: I have no affiliation with Amazon.) Order with one-day shipping and you will have it the next day.

  • Should be " where they have a presence and one day shipping", it's not available everywhere even where Amazon has local presence – Rsf Nov 19 at 13:59
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In many countries there are offices dedicated to travellers. They usually provides infos about the city and nearby sites worth visiting. Their work is to help travellers by answering questions. The sort of questions, you are about to ask, are within their competence. At least they can suggest you some options where to get the final answer.

On the other hand, do not expect to get exact match. For example I've found one model of Vibram Fivefingers on their US-oriented e-shop but in CZ there was no chance to buy them that year - they were available year later as "new". You cannot buy any Skoda in the US while it's a common car in the EU. If you are looking for a Canon camera you can get one model with different names, so if your Rebel camera got stolen you will return to US with D700 model instead...

Also be aware that electronics are localized. In Europe the mains voltage is 230 VAC, in US it's 110 VAC. Different countries use different plug shapes. You won't get the not-localized plugs and powersources easily yet some producers offer some compatibility. For example the charger I got with my Canon D700 camera I bought in CZ is compatible with both 230 V/50Hz and 110 V/60 Hz power while the US-localized charger cannot withstand the 230 VAC power.

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    What? There are still companies providing power adapters/chargers that are not 100-240V for devices that are supposed to be using while travelling? – jcaron Nov 18 at 15:53
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A tourist information bureau should be able to tell you the speciality stores in the area. They may offer to call them for you to check if they supply the item(s) you want, which can come in handy if your skills in the local language aren't strong.

  • Local knowledge, and professional local knowledge, having heard thousands upon thousands of tourist (and local) requests; if that fails, ask a taxi driver; if that fails, visit a local, non-tourist, bar. If all three fail, you are unlikely to find it. old school !! – Mawg Nov 20 at 11:31
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If you want to find out online, try to find an Expat online forum. There usually people have posted these kinds of questions (since they usually have exactly the same problem, trying to find specialized items without really knowing the location)

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In general, I'd just ask someone who lives there! Especially if it's someone who sells other things in that category. That has worked dozens of times for me in Spain, Turkey, Taiwan, Korea, …

For the specific laptop example, I specifically wanted a MacBook. An employee of K-tuin (Logroño) ordered one with a US keyboard on Friday, and I picked it up at the store on Monday.

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Not quite answering my question, but I've just learned that there is a service called Grabr.io, which lets you order items from the US, and matches you with travelers coming to your location, who will deliver the item "in 1-2 weeks".

Yet in the particular example of replacing my stolen X1 Carbon, this would've been the best option: order the thing from Amazon US, with a US keyboard layout, and have a traveler deliver it to me.

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