Online Shopping: Confusion, Glut, Overload, and Misinformation
Senior Partner, CQ&A
As with most things Internet-related, that turns out to be the $64,000 question. You can start with a search engine or a shopping portal. Or a manufacturer’s site. Or a database of product reviews. Or a consumers’ guide. Or maybe a price comparison service. Or maybe you can save by bidding at an auction site, or joining a buyers’ club or other collective buying site, or by finding online coupons and rebates. You could also spend some time in a chat room devoted to online shopping (yes, they do exist) to help you decide where to start. Or maybe you really need a personal shopping bot.
On the other hand,
maybe you should just forget the whole thing.
Now, the two or three of you out there who read this column regularly (thanks, kids) know that I am not a Luddite. I am, in fact, dedicated to the proposition that the Web is indeed a very good thing for all of us. I shop on it a lot. What I don’t like about most things Web is the above-mentioned hype, and no area of the Internet suffers from hype as much as e-commerce, especially where that great American pastime, shopping, is concerned.
For example, according to bottomdollar.com (originally owned by Netcentric and recently acquired by ShopNow), which bills itself as a price-comparison service, their Web site:
...offers a comprehensive, easy to use, easy to access, and secure way for consumers to shop the Web by enabling them to quickly and easily compare key decision factors such as price and availability on countless products across an extensive network of top Internet merchants. With its unique capabilities, the bottomdollar shopping search engine has also been implemented on more than 1,000 affiliate sites. With leading-edge tracking and robust price comparisons, which can be placed directly on the affiliate’s Web site, bottomdollar’s affiliate program provides valuable content that generates both new and repeat visitors to affiliate Web sites.The anthropomorphic mySimon.com, another price comparison site, asks us this:
Say Hello to Simon. He may look harmless, but beneath his sunny exterior beats the heart of a ruthless shop-aholic. He’s tireless. He’s shrewd. He strikes awe in the souls of mere mortal shoppers. Simon is the best thing to happen to shoppers since the blue light special. His beyond-human-powers enable him to scour the internet looking for the items you want to buy. Within seconds, he gathers, organizes, and presents up-to-date information from over a thousand online retailers about prices, shipping, warranties — all the things that influence your buying decision. You can instantly compare apples to apples, as well as apples to oranges, from one convenient site. If you haven’t already, send Simon on a shopping spree. And be forewarned. He’ll stop at nothing to find you what you want. Put Simon to the test and GO SHOP!Now, to my experienced information professional eyes, there are only two items that might qualify as real data in either of those very lengthy paragraphs. Both services will compare prices and both access 1,000-plus sites. Beyond those two points, the language is, at best, confusing, and, at, worst, pure hype — for which I have another, probably more appropriate word. However, since respectable professional magazines won’t print that word, I will continue to call it hype — at least, in print.
Here are just a few points of confusion. The bottomdollar.com Web site claims that it can “quickly and easily compare key decision factors such as price and availability on countless products across an extensive network of top Internet merchants.” Then, in the very next sentence, it claims that “the bottomdollar shopping search engine has also [emphasis mine] been implemented on more than 1,000 affiliate sites.” Surely they’re not saying that none of their ‘more than 1,000 affiliate sites’ includes any from their ‘top Internet merchants?’ But, that’s exactly the interpretation that a random group of Net newbies came to when I read them the paragraph.
Further, bottomdollar claims, “With leading-edge tracking and robust price comparisons, which can be placed directly on the affiliate’s Web site, bottomdollar’s affiliate program provides valuable content that generates both new and repeat visitors to affiliate Web sites.” Does this mean that the software goes out and compares prices and puts little notes on affiliate sites like “You can buy computers cheaper directly from Dell than you can here?” Of course not — although that would certainly be “valuable content,” and it’s certainly what the Web site verbiage seemed to promise to my novice group. (What it’s supposed to mean, according to a company spokesperson, is that bottomdollar’s co-branded shopping engine has the “look and feel” of the affiliate site, which enables consumers to conduct searches without appearing to leave the site, so they come back to that site a lot because they find what they want and feel comfortable with the site. I know. I don’t get it either.)
MySimon.com’s home page verbiage isn’t really confusing — it’s just hype, simon pure and simon simple. We were confused by the electronic post-it note that appeared on the first actual shopping page we found after leaving the home page. That note said “Now shopping at 2,006 stores!” Well, that’s definitely “over a thousand,” so technically the “real data” we identified on the home page is correct. But how hard would it be to change the home page to read “over two thousand,” which would be — provided the information on the post-it is true — not only technically correct, but almost accurate? I’ve learned to value accuracy in a system intended to supply me with information that I need to make actual decisions. Hmm. Does mySimon care as much about accuracy as I do?
Now this next point is a real nit-picking observation, but I also disagree with the reviews and evaluations that say these particular systems will do “price comparisons.” What they do is price-fetching, and sometimes very limited fetching at that. You, the searcher, do the actual comparisons, and on many sites that isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Or as easy as it should be.
On mySimon, for example, if you choose “Computers & Software” from the home page, select “Notebook PCs,” and then search for Dell’s new Inspiron, you get 25 results, ranging in price from $1,699 to $3,952. But those prices are based on a set of “Standard Options,” which appear to be whatever each dealer decides to put in the package listed on its Web site. Sometimes the listed entry in a mySimon answer set has actual data, sometimes it just has — hype. You have to select each individual entry to see the full description of what you’ll get — type of processor, amount of RAM, factory-installed software, etc. — in order to really compare prices. In fact, if you select that nice, affordable $1,699 model to take out on the road so you can stay in touch, you’ll be amazed to discover that it doesn’t come with some fairly standard things you’d expect in a laptop — like a modem. If you use the “All Options” tab to reconfigure the system more to your needs — a good modem, some necessary software, that kind of thing — the price goes up. And up. And up.
Even more telling, all 25 records resulting from our search came from Dell’s own online store, meaning — what? That mySimon didn’t look at “over 1,000 retailers” to find the best price for the Inspiron? Well, did he even look at two? There’s no way to tell. At the top of the results page, a note informed me that there were “39 merchants today in PC notebooks.” Does that mean that all 39 were searched, and only Dell had the Inspiron?
So, here we are, left with some key questions that any red-blooded info pro would want answered before they elected the “best” price to pay for the Inspiron, based on information from this price “comparison” tool:
Journeys to Other Malls
Next, I ran the Inspiron search on CNET’s site, Shopper.CNET.com, which purportedly “locates the best price among 100 online stores, 100,000 products, updated daily,” where it pulled up 56 records, over twice what mySimon found. These also were all from Dell’s online store. Okay, now I’m beginning to suspect that you can only buy the Inspiron from Dell — or possibly that the Dell site does have the best prices. But I’m also wondering: Why did mySimon miss the additional records on the Dell site?
At any rate, the CNET entries are formatted to at least give you some basic configuration information, so you can do a quick comparison just by scanning down the list. For example, the first entry was “Dell Inspiron; Celeron, 466 MHz, 64 MB RAM, 4.8 GB hard disk, 14.1 in. display, 6.4 lb. w/battery, Windows 98 SE, at $2,526; and the second, Dell Inspiron, Celeron, 400 MHz, 32 MB (reviewed model: 64 MB) RAM, 4.8 GB (reviewed model: 6.4GB) hard disk, 14.1 in. display, 7.6 lb. w/battery, Windows 98, at $1,599” — different speeds, different RAM, different weights to help explain the different prices.
Each entry also
provides a link to CNET’s product review, if one exists. Just like mySimon,
CNET allows you to either order the equipment with “Standard Options,”
or to reconfigure the laptop from an “All Options” page and then reprice
it. CNET also included the following information on their screen: “Clarification:
The products listed here are base models. Base model configurations may
or may not match our reviewed models.”
Again in the interest of fairness, I must mention that both CNET and mySimon let you sort the results set by price, simply by clicking on the “Price” label. This helps a lot with CNET, where you can read the specifications for each entry and so compare what you’d get for your dollars. But remember: you only see prices from CNET’s paying participants.
Finally, I searched for Inspiron on bottomdollar, where it didn’t pull up anything from the Dell site. It did retrieve nearly 100 records — twice what CNET got, four times what mySimon found, from five different sites in all. However, not one record was for a configured Inspiron laptop, only for its components, so “comparing” prices was close to impossible.
Much easier to both use and understand, all the way around, was the Frictionless comparison engine, found on the LYCOShop site (oddly enough, at http://www.shop.lycos.com, not http://www.lycos.shop.com). If you’re interested in buying a laptop, for example, simply select “Compare Products” under the “Research” heading on the home page, then “Computers,” then “Laptops,” then choose from among a set of profiles, like Road Warrior or Telecommuter. The profiles list product features such as weight, speed, and memory and provides vendor information on warranties, availability, and delivery. You can customize each basic profile by editing it to rate factors like speed, screen size, availability, or price on a sliding scale from “not important” to “very important,” so the final product search closely fits your needs.
Even more important, the results screen contained the following information about the search itself: it reiterated my profile (Road Warrior, although the system would not let me get back to the profile and review it); gave me the total number of matches (133); the number of merchants searched (13); and the number of products searched (1,309). The entries for the products it did find included both a “value bar” and a rating number to illustrate how well or how poorly a given retrieved product matched my customized profile. There were even checkboxes beside each entry to help you pick the specific products that you want Frictionless to actually “compare” and a “Quick Search” box, where you can enter a manufacturer, a product, or other keyword to narrow your search further.
Of course, when I entered either “Dell” or “Inspiron” in the Quick Search box, the search came back with nothing! However, according to LYCOShop’s very helpful help desk, that only meant that the Inspiron didn’t meet enough of my profile requirements to make the final list, because, although you can’t buy Dell products through LYCOShop, their comparison engine does search the Dell site, unlike CNET, which only searches paying partners’ sites, or mySimon, which can’t seem to decide what it searches.
Speaking of the
LYCOShop help desk, you should know three things. First, the toll-free
number is in BIG letters right on the home page, just as though LYCOS expected
someone to actually use their customer support. (What a nice change from
having to hunt through Web page after Web page, teeth grinding, muttering
over and over, “But I don’t want to send an e-mail! I want to talk to a
person!”) Second, hard though it may be to believe, a customer service
representative — a live one, not a recording — picked up my call on the
second ring. Third, that representative actually knew the answers to my
questions. All of ’em. I’m not making this up. I swear.
Caveat, Emptor Virtualis
That’s a quick look at four “price comparison” sites. It’s certainly not exhaustive. Some sites, for example, include information from, or link to, BizRate.com in their entries. Some indicate whether TrustE or the Better Business Bureau have evaluated a retrieved site. Some lay out shipping and handling information for each of the shops they rate, but some don’t.
Shoppers! One company’s site may offer a high-end multi-function printer
for $200 that another company’s site offers for $300, but the higher priced
one may include free ink cartridge replacements, graphics-enhancing software,
or no extra charges for overnight shipping.
Attention, E-mart Shoppers! Does the service you use also give you prices from auction sites? Fully 60 percent — and that’s a conservative estimate — of the software sold at online auctions is pirated, according to the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), which last year surveyed three popular auction sites run by eBay, ZDNet, and Excite. Who’s to say only software is affected?
|“Gimme That Computer...No, the Other One”|
Shoppers! If you’re really shopping for computers, the list of “comparison
shopping sites” goes on and on and on. Your first shopping task is shopping
for the best shopping comparison site. Here are just a few others:
The Computer Price Cruncher
Computer Shopper ZDNet
PC Today Home Page
Computers.Com — Cnet
Jango (Also known as the Excite
|NO GUTS, NO GLORY|
|If you’re still
of a mind to move a lot of your spending to the Web, you may want to check
out the "Shopping Online: e-Shopping Tips" from the Consumer Reports Web
One really neat thing these price comparison services can do for you, however, is to give you information you can use at the mall. Print that list of features and that low, low price and head for your nearest computer store and see if they will beat it. After all, their selling point is personalized service, and what better way to build good customer relations than to offer a good product … at a good price?
By the way, speaking of neat things, some sources remain the shopper’s friend no matter what the technology. Check out Consumer Reports Online [http://www.consumerreports.org]. The online version of the famous publication, just like the print, refuses to take advertiser money, so you’ll have to pay, but it’s worth it. For $24/year or $3.95 a month renewable ($19 for print subscribers), you can access their e-ratings, back copies of reviews and articles searchable by product information, and their Online Shopping guide feature, which does a great job covering all kinds of online shopping sites.
Lysbeth B. Chuck
is Senior Partner of CQ&A in Studio City, CA. Her e-mail address is