It seems more and more that web shopping is talking about getting the best price for goods and services. This week a new meta-site, www.comparisonshopping.net, has links to several different price-comparison search tools. You can shop for the best price for particular books, for mortgages, for digital cameras, even for web hosting services, among other things. Each site is independent of the others. You can't buy anything on comparisonshopping.net -- it just lists these other starting points where you can price particular merchandize. Once you get your prices, you still need to go to a particular web storefront and buy the stuff.
These comparison sites illustrate a new trend on the web: combine some solid searching capabilities with some smart database coding and links technology to present the best prices on specific items. Will it fly? I am not sure. There is a lot of clicking around various places, and you can tire easily of the hunt for the cheapest gee-gaw. Even the most highly motivated shopper or eternal cheapskate will meet with some techno-frustration here.
Part of the problem is that there is a great deal of technology under the hood for any of these comparison sites. You have to know what you are doing, and some of them, such as the budgetweb.com site that enumerates web hosting service offerings, don't really measure up.
One issue is that any pricing site needs to clearly present its selection criteria so that you the shopper can narrow the field to the things you are interested in. In the case of web hosting, for example, budgetweb.com divides their database into those service providers that will sell you a site with your own domain name, versus those who want you to use a subdirectory off the provider's name. That is nice, but there are lots of other criteria (for example, how many hops away or what is the upstream provider) that they don't list.
Another issue is that there is a great deal of consumer education that has to happen before people will be comfortable using these comparison sites. What if the price leader turns out to be just two guys running a Unix box out of some offshore garage? They could capture lots of business and overnight be swamped and not be able to deliver.
Are these comparison sites the death knell of brand identity on the web? I am not so sure: if I can buy a book at either twoguysfromagarage.com or somebody like Amazon.com, I probably will stick with Amazon unless the price spread is huge. Still, they certainly dilute any brand equity by making it easier to shop around.
Let's take the site that compares book prices as an example. The site, www.acses.com, is run by a German company called Muenchhoff & Janz. I did a search on a $25 hardback book and within a few minutes the results page came back. A nice touch was this page had links taking me directly to the store with the item information encoded in the URL. This means that with another click, I am even closer to completing the purchase process on the storefront of my choice. All well and good.
Looking at the results page, you can see some interesting things. First, the range of discounts on this one book is usually between 20 and 30%, which matches what the large chain bookstores usually do. Second, the real point of differentiation among the various bookselling sites is shipping charges. You'd expect to pay $3 or so to ship a book, but some storefronts charge $10, $15 or even $25! That is highway robbery if you ask me. Granted, a store should recover its costs for shipping, but at these rates shipping becomes a profit center.
All told, I had several stores where I could buy my book anywhere from $21 on up, depending on how soon I needed it and what the various shipping charges would be. Now acses.com is great if you are trying to find the cheapest price on one book. If you want to spread these outrageous shipping costs across several books, acses.com is more complex. They require you to first find the ISBN number for all of your books and then enter these numbers in a special search form. That is somewhat cumbersome, and the links don't place all the books into your shopping cart, just the last one you entered. As I said, lots of programming is required to get this sort of thing right. Chances are I'll probably just go to the store's site directly to make multiple book orders.
Comparison shopping on the web has lots of promise. But you need to pull off great searching and database technology along with solid site design to make it really fly.
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