Web Shopping: Bots and Beyond
From my spot in the checkout line, the whole idea of shopping as entertainment is as flawed as most dot-com business plans. Drive through traffic, jostle strangers, stare at a Colosseum-size array of goods at a superstore--all to buy a camera? It's not my idea of fun.
For me, shopping is a job, not an adventure. The same applies to shopping online. You have to research items, compare prices, select a seller, and find the safest way to pay. Add to this the nightmares that can attend online shopping: goods that don't arrive, crummy customer service, and the hacker bogeyman trying to co-opt your credit card. But none of these concerns prevent me or millions of others from buying on the Web. What's the attraction? Mostly, it's the 24/7 access and the ability to shop in your undershorts. Three-fourths of buyers say convenience is their main reason for shopping on the Web, according to Astrid Van Dorst, senior analyst with the Gartner Group. Fewer than half of them are motivated by getting a great price.
And while online shopping does require some work, a host of tools and services can make spending your money easier than ever. You knew they'd find a way to help you do that, didn't you?
Among the services available to online buyers are product review sites that offer opinions from experts and consumers, shopping bots that provide price comparisons, and ratings sites that rank sellers based on consumer satisfaction.
To test these sites, I shopped for an array of business-related
items--including a fax machine and a digital camera--and personal goodies, such
as a Razor scooter (for my nephew, I swear), a fancy-shmancy electronic Lego
MindStorm set, a copy of the book
But would I be able to trust the advice I received in cyberspace? Would these sites save me time? The answer is, not always. I spent 1 to 2 hours shopping for each item--reasonable, perhaps, for a costly fax machine, but impractical for the Lego set or the pullover. So if you don't mind spending hours on research, these tools can help you find products, spot deals, and dig up reputable sellers. But they aren't the best choice for every item. Research tools and bots, for instance, work best for electronic goods with clearly defined features that are easy to rate--such as the pixel resolution of a digital camera. Clothes and toys, however, come in many variations, and are tougher for price bots to compare meaningfully. Still, when you have a list of items to buy and don't have time to battle the hordes at the mall, online shopping can be a blessing.
Whenever I'm looking for a good book, I call my bud Keith, who reads more tomes than a caffeinated college kid cramming for finals. If electronics are on the agenda, Brian's my man. And clothes? I consult Emily, my teenage daughter, of course.
Unless you know exactly what you want when you shop, you probably also begin your task by asking friends for advice. The same applies to the Internet, where product review sites can serve as your shopping guides.
Product review sites cull assessments from experts or from real people who have used the product you want. They can help you determine which digital camera you need, or just help you research an item you plan to buy offline at a store. But the difference between an expert site and one that uses consumer reviews can be the difference between a well-written opinion full of facts and a vague endorsement or a flaming condemnation of a product.
Both types of sites have their pluses. Expert sites compare products and name the best in a category. Consumer review sites offer real-world evaluations of a specific product. One note about expert sites, however: Some of them have relationships with the merchants who sell the goods they evaluate. ConsumerSearch, for example, receives fees from vendors (disclosed in its FAQs) to include links to the vendors' sites alongside reviews.
Just as I started my spree, Productopia, my favorite pro review site, went belly-up. Productopia was my choicest pick because it covered more types of products than any other site. But now I had to switch gears and delve into multiple review sites, each covering a limited variety of products.
I went first to
So I turned to
For a second opinion, I went to
When it comes to buying advice, however, expert reviews suffer from
one problem: Each judgment reflects the view of a few people at most. That's
why it's helpful to visit a consumer site such as
Unfortunately, consumer reviews vary widely in quality. Some are as
terse as a
Consumer review sites are also sparse on categories. All three sites were swell for recommending electronic goods, but weak on clothes, toys, and books. None reviewed the Lego set, and only Deja and Epinions offered a pullover suggestion. Epinions alone gave me reviews for the Razor scooter and the book.
My biggest complaint with these sites is what I call the People's Choice syndrome: Products rate high not because they're great, but because many people buy them. For instance, ConsumerReview ranked the now-discontinued Nikon Coolpix 100 as top camera, but none of the 30 sources cited by ConsumerSearch rated it best.
I advise using expert sites to compile a list of the top goods, then heading to consumer review sites to read what real people think about those products. That's how I settled on the Kodak DC-280 camera and the HP LaserJet 3100 printer/fax machine for my small-business office.
Would a professional shopper who spends her days searching for the best products and prices for her clients have anything to gain by using Web shopping tools? We asked Jennifer Butler, a personal shopper for Hollywood film studio execs and Top 40 musicians, to test-run some Web shopping agents to see if they could do her job.
Butler never knows what her clients will request: It could be the perfect teapot one day, a Rolex watch or designer duds the next. When we contacted Butler, her list included a TV/VCR for a busy executive who was tired of missing her must-see TV, a selection of wool winter coats for a client heading to upstate New York, and an antique end table for another executive.
Normally Butler would need a week to find all the items on her list, running from store to store and flipping through endless catalogs. "The Web has always seemed like a big catalog in some ways," she says, "but it's so big I thought it would be too hard to find anything."
In fact, her first try at Web shopping turned out to be deceptively easy.
Butler began with the TV/VCR at
MySimon.com immediately led Butler to a Panasonic PVC 2780 at
After printing out her purchase order, Butler optimistically went to
After spending 2.5 fruitless hours in front of the monitor, Butler grew weary. "It's interesting that I can spend all day walking into different shops, just looking around, but I've already had enough when I'm shopping [online]." While it had been fairly easy to navigate the various shopping agents, Butler was left with the feeling that there was a lot more on the Net than the bots were able to find. Clearly, she didn't have to worry about clients replacing her with a robotic shopping assistant in the near future.
"I provide a service that these sites don't," Butler said. "I've got ... clients who don't like to shop, some who [need] help creating a particular image.... I'm like an interpreter of style and trends [for them]. So I see these sites as an added resource, rather than as competition."
Overall, her success with the TV/VCR was undercut by the unavailability of the other items on her list. "I would use online shopping as a supplementary service to offer my clients," Butler concluded, "but I don't see it becoming my sole means of shopping any time soon." --David Bock
Once you know what you want to buy, you have to figure out who's got the best deal. That's where shopping bots earn their keep. These software agents scour the Web or their own massive databases for products you designate. Then, like the Greek messenger Hermes on amphetamines, they zip back with a list of prices and places to buy. If they do the job right, bots spare you from visiting dozens of stores to collect prices and allow you to sniff out the steals from the so-so deals.
But even the best bots can't guarantee they'll find the lowest price or dig up all the vendors. (Call me paranoid, but I suspect there's always a lower price out there somewhere.) Since no two bots survey the same list of online merchants, it pays to employ a few of them for more results.
I found the general-purpose shopping agents most useful because they
comb so many product categories. (There are also category-specific bots, such
MySimon, DealTime, and BizRate produced lists that focused more tightly on what I wanted. That's because the sites let me select categories before they delivered results. After I typed in "scooter," for instance, MySimon had me pick from five categories that included Skateboards and Vehicles & Rideons. The result was a list with few irrelevant items. However, when I asked Excite to show me prices for the LaserJet 3100 (the printer/fax I'd picked), it listed over 180 items, from laptops to laser printer cartridges. Only one was the LaserJet I wanted.
All in all, MySimon is my top draw. Its interface is easy to navigate, it lets you search dealers by criteria such as whether they charge restocking fees, and sends e-mail alerts when a product's price drops to a specified amount. BizRate's my second pick for its one-stop approach. It blends vendor ratings with a solid search bot and lists of the most popular products. My only gripe is that its search bot shows fewer vendors than MySimon's, perhaps because the feature is new.
Although comparison bots do a decent job of collecting prices on
higher-priced electronics gear, they slip on lower-cost items that have endless
variations, such as clothing and toys.
There is one advantage to paid placement and icons: Vendors who partner with a price bot open their database to the bot, so the prices they deliver tend to be more current. Inviting vendors to pay for placement helps the pricing sites make money, but the practice should be disclosed. MySimon, BizRate, and DealTime mention deals they make with vendors, but RoboShopper doesn't.
"Trust, but verify," President Ronald Reagan used to say. I agree with him when it comes to picking online merchants. After choosing a product and finding the best price, you'll want to confirm that the seller you're dealing with is solid. This is crucial, since the lowest price might not always be the best deal in the end.
Nefarious online merchants are legion. The National Consumers League's Internet Fraud Watch reports that last year online scams cost consumers over $3.2 million. So read the fine print on everything, including shipping fees and taxes, the vendor's debit policy (choose a store that won't charge your credit card until your item ships), and complaint policy (it should be clearly defined and should include both an e-mail address and a phone number for customer service).
One way to verify an online vendor's trustworthiness is through
ratings services like
BizRate takes the populist approach, collecting thousands of buyer
surveys to score a store. Businesses voluntarily join BizRate's program by
letting shoppers fill out a survey at the end of their transaction (BizRate
also rates nonparticipating stores through an in-house panel of shoppers). But
BizRate's ratings are very kind. The lowest-rated online electronics store, for
example, still received a score of 6.7 out of 10. Grade inflation is rampant on
all rating sites (see
You can search for a specific online store or cruise the categories on either site to locate the dealers you're considering. I used Gomez and BizRate as tiebreakers when the cost-comparison bots delivered vendors that were close in price. For instance, my confidence about buying at Outpost.com--which offered the lowest price on the digital camera--soared when I found that the site received ratings of 9.1 out of 10 at BizRate. The rating services also warned me against one site that offered a very low price on a Razor. Gomez ranked the store 24th out of 30 in its category. And BizRate has a handy shopping toolbar add-on (for Internet Explorer only) that makes vendor comparisons one-click easy. The service isn't perfect, however, and sometimes differences between stores seem minor, even though one may be rated higher than the other on the chart.
But even though Gomez rates more than 6000 online firms and BizRate rates 5000, they do not cover every Tom, Dick, and Harry.com. Several small-scale sites (like MyRazorScooter.com) that appeared on price bot lists didn't appear on either service's rankings. That's when it becomes your call whether to entrust your purchase to an unfamiliar site or shop elsewhere.
Ever fill up your shopping cart in a grocery store only to abandon it when you see the long, slow-moving checkout lines? Well, according to a Boston Consulting Group study, approximately two-thirds of online consumers are wont to do the same. Why? Because some sites frustrate them by demanding that they fill out too many forms of information or offer less-than-stellar guarantees about the security of their credit card transactions.
To help customers avoid repeatedly filling out information at sites they
visit frequently, many online stores use browser cookies to remember your
personal data (not always a good thing, in the mind of some consumers).
Alternatively, you can use a digital wallet, which stores your purchasing
information (including credit card numbers) and feeds it to online forms at
To improve credit card security, American Express has developed a new