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Net Prophet - by Dylan Tweney

December 21, 1998

Comparison shopping: It is just as frustrating on the Internet as it is in the real world

Don't panic -- it's not too late. There's still just enough time to do your Christmas shopping on the Web. If you're reading this column online (where it appears a day or two before its publication date in print), you might even be able to get some Web shopping done in time for the Solstice.

Whichever holiday you celebrate this time of year, online retailers are happy to help you do so. Even credit card companies are getting into the spirit. For the first time, Visa is running a television commercial promoting the use of its credit card online toy store, which shows that the bank has finally bowed to the inescapable fact that credit cards are the preferred method of payment on the Internet.

But how easy is it, really, to get your shopping done online? Sure, by shopping on the Web you miss the crowded malls, the long lines, the ignorant salespeople with bad attitudes, and the screaming kids -- all the attractions of offline shopping.

On the other hand, in the offline world you don't have to wait five minutes to get a good look at a sweater you're thinking of buying, either. And you've probably got a pretty good idea where in the physical world to go if you're looking for sweaters: Online, it's not so clear.

The fact is, shopping on the Web still has a long way to go, despite some well-publicized success stories.

I decided to check out the state of the shopping art by using a few highly-touted comparison "agent" sites to shop for some common consumer items likely to find their way onto gift lists this year. These comparison sites purport to simplify the shopping process by helping you find and compare similar products from a variety of Web merchants.

I put them to the test first by looking for a cordless drill. CompareNet (www.compare.net) made it easy to get started here; it has a subcategory for cordless drills within its home appliances section. It let me filter and sort its database by price as well as drill-specific features and provided plenty of detail on each model. On the downside, CompareNet only listed suggested retail prices (not actual sales prices), didn't include pictures of the drills, and gave me no way to buy the model I wanted online.

MySimon (www.mysimon.com), however, had no information on any power tools. Its "Home and Garden" category currently contains only a gardening subcategory. Likewise, WebMarket (www.webmarket.com) contained no power tools. A search for "drill" returned only a bunch of educational math games and a few toy drills.

Next, I tried to find a child's bike. What could be more exciting to a young child than to see a new bike under the Christmas tree? Alas, if you're shopping online, your kids will be disappointed: None of these three sites offered bikes of any kind, let alone children's models. Desperate, I looked into WebMarket's collection of outdoor gear for kids. It had a decent selection of sleds, ice skates, outerwear, and sleeping bags for children -- all from L.L. Bean. So much for comparison shopping.

I had better luck looking for a woman's sweater. Although CompareNet had no category for apparel, WebMarket presented 109 women's sweaters to choose from, offered by a variety of merchants, and its search-results display let me compare prices, available colors, and shipping costs and times. When I clicked on an item, it took me to the appropriate page on the merchant's site for more information; I could also make purchases directly from the search-results screen.

MySimon was better: It showed me 122 women's sweaters, including a brief text description of each one. It even told me whether a particular color was in stock.

My experience shows that these sites work well only for a limited number of shopping categories. If you're looking for something specific, such comparison agents could be completely useless. (For even more information, see contributing editor David Strom's recent newsletter on the topic, at www.strom.com/awards/130.html.)

You may be better off using a general search engine to locate vendors, then doing the comparisons yourself using separate browser windows for each vendor's site.

Have you used the Web to get your shopping done this year -- and did it help? Write to me at dylan@infoworld.com or visit my online forum at www.infoworld.com/printlinks.

Dylan Tweney (dylan@infoworld.com) has been covering the Internet since 1993. He edits InfoWorld's intranet and Internet-commerce product reviews.

Previous columns by Dylan Tweney

Who should be named Netrepreneur of the year? Cast your vote
December 21, 1998

Who should be named Netrepreneur of the year? Cast your vote
December 14, 1998

AOL-Netscape merger foreshadows dark days for independent media
December 7, 1998

When taking measure of e-commerce, don't forget about the costs
November 30, 1998

Portal site for teens sheds some light onto possible future of Internet commerce
November 23, 1998

Every column since August, 1997

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