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Comparing the Comparison-Shopping Sites

 by Mike Scott (mikescott@wwwiz.com)

 Not long ago you could wear out a pair of shoes walking from store to store in a massive regional shopping mall trying to find the right product for yourself or a gift recipient. Even with the help of product reviews and consumer advice magazines, making the right choice could be quite difficult, with the endless number of available products.

          Today on the Web, consumers can comparison shop as they never have before. Huge databases of information about products, services and companies are readily available so that you're more likely to make a decision you don't regret.

The average buyer is increasingly moving towards e-commerce to make purchases, both major and minor. A recent study by the Boston Consulting Group showed that 57% of all Internet users have browsed online and 51% have purchased goods or services over the Web. The typical online consumer made 10 purchases and spent about $500 in 1999.

          As millions of Web-savvy consumers surf their favorite sites daily, they increasingly rely on comparison-shopping services, robots and portals to make purchases online. Some buyers look mainly for price comparisons while others search for quality ratings and detailed product information. And this trend is likely to continue because shopping on the Web is easy, saves time and often saves money (including sales tax charges).

          While online purchases and Internet use in general is skyrocketing, this doesn't guarantee that the comparison-shopping marketplace will be able to support the growing number of webmasters who are trying to attract shoppers to their comparison sites. All major comparison-shopping portals have been established within the past four years and many sites (such as mySimon) have already been acquired or assimilated in an industry where only the strongest survive.

 

Compareitall.com

 

A newcomer with an interesting motivational and infrastructure twist is Compareitall, a start-up formed last year by an elite group of Silicon Valley investors. The founders of the Palo Alto-based company argue that their approach offers a fresh alternative to the scores of sites that offer little more than reformatted advertisements from vendors who pay for exposure.

          The company claims a unique business model designed to enable experienced entrepreneurs with expertise across a range of products and services to own and manage their own comparison-service sites. Compareitall runs on an incubator model that provides funding, business mentors and operational support to entrepreneurs selected for their knowledge and experience in a particular product category.

          This arrangement, says Compareitall, provides consumers with unprecedented access to a community of unbiased information that enables them to make informed buying decisions about buying products and services quickly and easily.  Because experienced, driven entrepreneurs rather than employees review products, moderate discussions and manage the comparison databases, the comparisons are more accurate and informative, claims Compareitall founder and chief technology officer Terry Haggin.

          ``There are many prominent comparison-shopping sites, but most of them are more like a yellow pages directory than an unbiased comparison service," says Haggin. ``They don't have everything that we have incorporated into our business model. They don't employ highly motivated entrepreneurs, they don't have live moderators and they don't offer the same level of detail in their shopping comparisons."

The incubator infrastructure used by Compareitall seeks to offer a comprehensive shopping solution where individuals can compare prices, product features and merchant performance along with product reviews and ratings by experts in the field. Chairman and CEO Steve Harari says the goal is to have each Web site in the incubator provide professional editorial content from subject matter experts, consumer-driven moderated discussions, access to product and service reports and a suite of integrated tools designed to provide a complete picture.

          Compareitall is working with such companies as BottomDollar (for pricing information), BizRate (for third party consumer review information) and Active Buyer's Guide (feature and product comparisons). Relationships have even been established with such corporate powerhouses as Troy, Mich.-based Delphi Automotive, which formerly was a part of General Motors, Hewlett-Packard and IBM for maintaining message boards, news feeds and more.

          ``We want to consolidate the best of what the Web has to offer," says Harari. ``Our mission is to focus on improving the overall online shopping experience by providing comprehensive, unbiased information and giving consumers more power in the buyer/seller transaction."

 

Consumer Reports

 

The long-time giant of the comparison-shopping magazine business is Consumer Reports, which in the past few years has evolved an interactive Web site to complement its paper magazine read by millions. Both the magazine and Web site offer exclusive product reviews and add different product features weekly. Consumer Reports also provides a bevy of other services, including health and travel letters, an auto insurance price service, books and buying guides published annually, educational videos, a children's publication and more. To access some areas of the site you must pay $3.95 a month or $24 a year.

The nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports is Consumers Union. This organization seeks to provide informative and educational materials to help individuals understand the variety of products offered in today's marketplace. It is the nation's largest consumer product testing and research center that seeks to give ``objective, unbiased information in a completely (advertisement) free environment."

 

ConsumerREVIEW.com

 

Yet another Web shopping alternative is ConsumerREVIEW.com, which develops and manages Web communities around common product interests. Like Compareitall and Consumer Reports, ConsumerREVIEW.com concentrates on individuals who wish to research products on the Internet. The big difference is that this site relies on volunteer enthusiasts to contribute reviews free of charge.

``We want to be a one-stop shop and overall trusted source for product information," says Christina Jones of Consumer Review. ``It's important that we help (consumers) prepare for shopping both online and at offline stores."

Jones says ConsumerREVIEW.com has concentrated on such product segments as home and garden, sports and recreation and electronics and entertainment, although the company does plan to expand to travel, home improvement and other services and products. The site hosts communities that focus on audio and electronics equipment, baby/toddler gear, cars and accessories, computing electronics and more.

Founder and mountain biking enthusiast Francis Cebedo started ConsumerREVIEW.com as a hobby in 1996. He developed the site to provide product review of biking parts and discovered he had built a viable e-commerce advice company.

Last winter the company struck up its latest partnership with West Marine to provide thousands of product reviews written and submitted by boating enthusiasts. Recently, ConsumerREVIEW announced an agreement with Internet giant Yahoo! to provide product reviews to Yahoo! Shopping, one of the Web's most frequently visited commerce destinations.

 

Other Comparison Sites

 

There are thousands of smaller Web sites, many of which are designed by people looking to earn commissions by serving as a business affiliate to large online merchants. Site owners can earn from 1 to 10% on purchases made through site referrals. One of the more reliable comparison sites of this type is PriceSearch.com, which simply offers price differences for electronics.

          Many other sites also offer comparison-shopping tips and product advice. Your best bet is to visit the most prominent ones and decide which are most user-friendly and interactive and contain the greatest amount of quality information. Here are several places to start:

Epinions.com–Consumers can appraise more than 100,000 products and services ranging from ski resorts and vacation packages to all types of technology such as DVD players and digital cameras. When users log on, information written by favorite reviewers appears first. There is also a 100-word minimum and a policy that pays reviewers a small amount of money every time the submission gets read.

Productopia.com–This site was launched in April 1999 and entered the consumer review market late last year. The reviews are simple for nearly 500 products but the site promises to grow in the types of services it will offer surfers. Productopia.com is a good site if you are looking for a quick and dirty review.

          CNET.com–User opinions were added to its expert reviews last summer, allowing CNet Networks Inc. to maintain its status as a technological super site. Consumers review a wide range of products and indicate whether the product is a ``yes" or ``no." In-depth reviews are available with balanced reports that are detailed. This site is best used for technology product searches. In March, CNet Networks Inc. indicated that it would form an additional group to bring comparison shopping and its other services to wireless Web access devices, such as cell phones. That news came on the heels of the revelation that the company had purchased online comparison-shopping competitor mySimon.

Deja.com–This is one of the oldest comparison shopping sites on the Internet, boasting approximately one million consumer ratings. In late February, deja.com became a customer portal, adding expert reviews and proprietary online price-comparison services. Before that, in-depth reviews were not as common on this site as short ratings, making this more of a pure consumer shopping rather than product insight Web site.

eCompare.com–This site is also striving to become the vertical portal for online shoppers. eCompare seeks to aggregate e-tail outfits in the effort to provide one-stop shopping convenience. Visitors can compare merchandise across multiple online merchants, and the site is better served as a price rather than product quality comparison resource.

 

Mike Scott  is a freelance writer in the metropolitan Detroit area. He has written for various magazines, online publications and local newspapers covering such topics as business, technology, finance and sports.

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