When the going gets tough, the tough ones among us like to comparison shop. But I am not talking price -- I mean side-by-side comparisons of actual features. This is actually the most critical moment for any consumer: when one needs a particular product, but hasn't decided on a particular brand, and is still trying to choose.
Interestingly, few people have focused on this aspect of eCommerce. Yet, it plays to one of the best traits of the web: the ability to do your research as a consumer, to find everything you want to know about the actual product category that you are interested in purchasing. Companies put up all sorts of information on their web sites, from copies of their actual user manuals (so you can see how hard they are going to be to setup), to detailed product specification sheets. And sometimes they are very good about providing links to this information.
When I bought my car last year, the site that my wife and I first spent lots of time at was Yahoo Autos. And one of the more compelling reasons didn't have anything to do with the price of the cars -- it was because we could construct pages that showed side-by-side comparisons of up to four vehicles in our browser. We could pick any four, and then print them out and study them to understand the differences of the various cars we were considering.
To help matters, Yahoo makes it easy to zero in on your vehicle: you can search by make, year and trim line. Once you pick your first car, Yahoo makes some assumptions about the rest of the cars in your comparison. For example, if you start out with a SUV, it then lists other SUVs, although you can easily override this and include four different models.
All it takes is some solid database programming to do this properly. Of course, your database has to be rich enough to make these side-by-sides useful: if you have a rather sparse database, with few fields or few products, then most consumers will just be frustrated rather than enlightened.
Let's take another example. I am looking at buying a home LCD video projector, and again want to be able to examine several different units. At ProjectorPeople.com, I can specify up to three different models to display their features side-by-side. And there are plenty of projectors to choose from, too.
ProjectorPeople also gives their own recommendations on the most popular projectors, or ones suitable for particular purposes, and they have a nice page that links you to reviews written by others (although they missed my own review for Computerworld last year). Of course, the company also will sell you a projector when you have figured out which one you really want, and they are not afraid to list their prices right there as part of the comparison matrix.
Side-by-side shopping on the web is a great idea, and one that more sites should investigate using. It is a great tool for consumers, and a great way to bring back repeat visitors.
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