Quote of the week: "I have no idea what you're talking
about when you say 'ask.'"
-- Bill Gates' videotaped testimony, aired yesterday in Federal court.
When I first wrote about shopping online, I said that the experience was like driving to your local mall on the day after Thanksgiving, and having to look for a half-hour before you could find a parking space. Once you got inside the mall, the signage for all the stores had mysteriously been removed, so it took you a while to find the stores you desired. Once you got inside your favorite store, the items you were looking for were out of stock, and once you got to register to pay, they didn't take your particular brand of credit card.
Bill Gates isn't the only clueless one these days. Jupiter Communications predicts that this holiday shopping season, consumers will spend $2.3 billion online, more than double what they spent last year. I frankly doubt this figure: for comparison purposes, that is about a third of what Americans spend going to the movies all year, or buying and renting adult videos, or buying CDs and other music all year. Do you really think online shopping is as popular as these common industries? I don't think so.
To aid this online gold rush, as I wrote last August in WI #121, there are now a half dozen or more comparison shopping "portals" that will go forth and scour the net to find the cheapest prices or particular merchandize. The trouble is, as I found out, you can only choose one metric for many sites: prices or specific items. But I am getting ahead of my story.
As a test, let's assume I know what I want in terms of actual brand, and see how good these shopping portals are at finding the best price. I picked at random the following items to buy:
Note that some of the items are unique, like the bike and camcorder, while others have several models or choices, like the sneakers and wine. I used the following comparison sites: Junglee.com's Compaq and Hotbot sites, Jango.com's Excite shopping channel, MySimon.com, Bottomdollar.com, and CompareNet.com. Here are the results.
CompareNet wins the prize for the most difficult to navigate search screens. There are modal dialog boxes, multiple frames, buttons and links galore. This portal is best for comparing two or more different items, say when I wanted to look at the different features of two camcorders and find out which one came with stabilization and which didn't. When I drilled down to find which Nike Air model I wanted to buy, I was presented with one link: to NetMarket. When I clicked on the link, I was taken to NetMarket's home page, where I would have to search through their site all over again for the right kind of sneakers. Still, it was the only site that told me that the Nike's midsoles were made out of Single-density Phylon, whatever that is.
MySimon had the best search for the Sony camcoder: I could zoom right in on the make and model with a couple of screen forms. But they came up with only two vendors. One of these is J&R Electronics, where I wouldn't buy anything no matter what price (the store in downtown New York City is notorious for its bait-and-switch ads and being "temporarily out of stock"). Their wine search was less useful: you could only specify "Chardonnay" on search form, which presented you with 66 screens of various wines. They were useless with the other items on my shopping list: for example, for the Beanie Baby, they came up with hundreds of results, without being able to match my Inch the inchworm specifically.
The Jango/Excite shopping site gave me two places to buy my wine: I could drill down right to Kendall Jackson, and find several different bottles. However, on Beanie Babies it came up with over 300 results, although all of them had something to do with that cute and colorful inchworm. They didn't have anything for bikes.
Junglee has a sort of anti-branding campaign underway. When you go to their site, you can choose from a variety of other sites that run their software, including HotBot and Compaq. HotBot's search under "Wine and Food" category offered no way to search for wine: I guess this will be in version 2.0. The Junglee/Compaq site wasn't much better: I could find lots of Nike sneakers at L.L. Bean, but none of the "Air" models. When I looked for Beanie Babies, I couldn't search for a particular one either, and had over a hundred results to page through. And forget about finding any Trek bikes (or even Schwinns): nothing came up for these searches. It found lots of Sony-branded video tapes, VCRs and batteries, but no camcorders.
BottomDollar had a single site, eToys, selling Inch. When I searched for my Trek bike, it came back with all sorts of "Star Trek" autographed posters, but no bikes. It also had no matches for Schwinns. It was totally useless when it came time to search for sneakers: I got everything from hockey sticks to golf balls to golf clubs in the results. It did find the Sony camcorder at J&R, but nowhere else.
All in all, this is a pretty dismal shopping experience. Other than the bike, I could eventually find each item listed at least in one comparison portal. But no site had all the items, and even when they displayed the correct matches, at most I saw one or two storefronts to go to actually buy the item. Many of the results pages were difficult to navigate: from the first page of results, you could only go to the second page before seeing how many additional results pages you'd have to slog through. And many sites force you to first figure out the appropriate category (is "sporting goods" or "men's clothing" the place to find sneakers) before you started searching.
Searching for the best prices is similar to my analogy of the mall after Thanksgiving Day: it is hard to find stuff, even with these sites that supposedly make it easy for you. While the comparison portals do well with books, CDs, computers and videos, they are less than useful for common consumer items such as bikes, sneakers, wine and so forth. You would do far better picking one or two well-known storefronts and starting your search there.
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