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Tips for smart price comparison shopping

I have been looking for an upgrade to my camcorder lately and I used this opportunity to test how well the comparison sites from my list do the job. So I picked a search term and tried each site.

At the end of this post I have a table with results that lists what each of these websites produced including number of products and the best price.

While these results are just one snapshot of a much bigger picture, they did help me uncover certain facts that in turn resulted in a few useful shopping tips.

Many websites share the same list of products

One might think that the more sites you use for price comparison, the better result you will get. It is certainly true to some extend. However I noticed that many websites share the same product listings in results. Please read my previous post on the subject and use the facts you find there to build your own list of sites to use.

One of the tools that you might find useful is RoboShopper which is an aggregator that combines a few comparison engines under one roof. You enter your search term once and then simply switch between multiple websites to see what results each of them gives you.

Remember to re-sort the search results

Majority of price comparison websites make their living by offering merchants prominent positions in search results. These are often marked as “Sponsored” or “Certified” but they usually mean nothing more than the fact that the merchant paid to rank high in the results. Make sure you resort the list by price to avoid getting caught by this little trick.

Watch out for scam shops

Websites who have low barriers for merchants to list their products tend to list a lot of scam shops in search results. This is not the first time I face the problem. Some price comparison websites have been attempting to limit the customer exposure to these merchants. CNET for example will only show “trusted” merchants by default and you will have to click on “Show all” to see the rest.

The most affected services are TheFind, ShopWiki, and Froogle. In my tests they produced the largest number of results, however the merchants in the list that have the lowest price are often nothing else than scam shops. Read this extended PC World research for details on the tricks that these merchants employ to get you on the hook.

Prices and merchants change every day

I didn’t finish my test within a day and had to continue next morning. What I noticed right away is that some merchants have changed prices, some merchants were removed, and others were added. The picture overall has significantly changed. This brought me to an important conclusion. If you can’t find today what you want for the price you like, wait till tomorrow. Certain sites (e.g. Nextag) publish price trend graphs that will assist you when in doubt.

Sometimes websites go down

This is exactly what happened during my tests. The message below was up during a good part of the day yesterday at MSN shopping. Now tell me Microsoft software is reliable. ;-)

MSN error

My search results

I used keyword “sony sr300” in my tests. Sony SR300 is Sony’s flagman consumer camcorder released earlier this year. Here are my results, excluding the websites that republish the content they obtain from other companies (see my previous post on this).

(*) indicates that the price doesn’t include shipping charges. This also may mean that the website doesn’t offer the functionality to show the shipping charges on products. I highlighted the best results using bold font.

Web Site Results Best Result
shopping.yahoo.com 26 $712 (*) PrestigeCamera
froogle.google.com 61 $735 FotoSprint
shopper.cnet.com 17 $749 ButterflyPhoto
shopping.com 12 $777 AbesOfMaine
nextag.com 18 $739 EnterprisePhoto
pricegrabber.com 20 $749 ButterflyPhoto
shopzilla.com 26 $766 FotoConnection
smarter.com 33 $739 EnterprisePhoto
pricerunner.com 15 $749 ButterflyPhoto
pricewatch.com 0 doesn’t list any of Sony SR line
become.com 26 $749 PrestigeCamera
ebates.com 0 doesn’t list any of Sony SR line
thefind.com 30 $731 (*) WildDigital
sortprice.com 5 $732 (*) Access2Digital
like.com 0 offers no/few technology products
pricescan.com 14 $739 EnterprisePhoto
jellyfish.com 0 only lists the previous model, SR 200
pronto.com couldn’t get search to work
activeshopper.com 6 $777 AbesOfMaine
shopwiki.com 88 $459 BestPriceCameras (scam)
streetprices.com 8 $742 BroadwayPhoto
mytriggers.com 30 $769 eBay

My overall impression, recommended websites

Looking at all the websites, I will single out a few that I liked the most and explain why. I excluded all sites that don’t calculate shipping charges. I think this is a critical piece of price comparison. Also, Shopping.com didn’t make my list. While I like the site a lot, it is hard to find a bargain taking into account how many other sites republish the content.

Price comparison sites — small fish, big fish

Eating FishI have been running a monthly list of popular price comparison sites for a while but I never really had a chance to check them all out, until today.

I have long suspected that many of them share the same feeds since the results often look very similar. As I looked at each website more closely, I have uncovered a few interesting facts that I want to share with you.

I hope these findings will help you to narrow your own list of sites to visit when looking for that best shopping deal.

Many price comparison sites use feeds from Shopping.com

Below is the list of websites that primarily use Shopping.com as the source of products. Some of them do offer added services on top of what they fetch from Shopping.com, and I will note those, but others simply wrap the results differently and display them back to you.

  • DealTime is really the original domain used by Shopping.com team. The service was relaunched in 2003 under Shopping.com brand and ever since the old domain is left dormant. It hasn’t got nearly as many of bells and whistles that Shopping.com offers
  • ShopLocal uses feeds from Shopping.com to complement their local listings. When you do the search you have a choice of shopping for the product locally or online. If you pick online, the results come to you by the way of Shopping.com
  • Epinions was acquired by DealTime/Shopping.com in 2003. It probably shouldn’t be in my list at all. It is a very good source of product reviews. As a price comparison engine, you will not find there anything that Shopping.com doesn’t offer
  • Mpire uses feeds from Shopping.com to supplement results from eBay, their main partner. If eBay is not one of your favorite destinations then you can avoid Mpire altogether.
  • Hawkee uses the feeds to supplement their own products. Hopefully Scott Aikin, the founder, whose comments I occasionally see on my blog, will elaborate more on the integration.
    Update: it sounds like my assumption about Hawkee was incorrect. Read the comments.

Bizrate and Shopzilla are really one price comparison site

Bizrate and Shopzilla are not two but one website. To be exact, the same team runs both and the websites are simply two ways of looking at the same products and stores. Shopzilla appears to be a little more stylish while Bizrate probably caters to more conservative shoppers.

I would personally sack Bizrate from my list as it produced slightly less merchants in my test than Shopzilla did, but your opinion may vary. In any case that takes care of one more website for us.

MSN aggregates feeds from Shopping.com, PriceGrabber, and eBay

When MSN Shopping launched, it was said that the company collaborated with Shopping.com and BizRate to kick start the business. Ever since they added eBay and possibly other partners as well. As for international markets, I have found a reference that MSN has chosen PriceRunner as the primary provider to feed the shopping search.

The news bits like this tell me that MSN is all about aggregating. The vast number of merchants in results from a relatively new service proves my point.

PriceGrabber drives AOL Shopping search results

AOL is another company who chose not to invent the bicycle and just used what others already offered. Earlier last month the news came out that PriceGrabber becomes AOL’s exclusive provider replacing Shopzilla who supplied products to AOL before the change.

CNET Networks owns MySimon and shares the data

In 2000 CNET bought MySimon, the leading price comparison website at that time. Ever since they have successfully incorporated price comparison technology into CNET portal while MySimon is basically left to die. It is not nearly as popular anymore as it was back in 2000. If you go to CNET Shopper, you will notice that it offers the same products but adds many more features.

Some more recent mergers and acquisitions

Price comparison industry seems to be prone to consolidation which adds a lot of confusion to online shoppers. Here are a few more affiliations that will clue you in on who eats who in the price comparison fish pond.

  • PriceGrabber and BottomDollar share the same owner
  • NexTag and Calibex are one company as well
  • Yahoo bought Kelkoo, a leading European price comparison service, in 2004
  • eBay acquired Shopping.com in 2005
  • Experian acquired PriceGrabber in the same year

Photo courtesy of Wgroesel at Stock.Xchng

Visual product comparison from ShoppingPath

Read/WriteWeb writes about an interesting product comparison website in the making. It has not officially launched yet but you can take a peek at the preview using this link which went live just last month.

The concept is very simple, each product is a dot on a chart where Y-axis is price and X-axis is a configurable attribute. This works the best with products that have distinctive quantitative characteristics, for example a screen size of a TV or the storage size of an MP3 player.

Take a look for example how digital cameras line up by the image resolution they are capable to deliver. The green dots mean you get better resolution (than that of the selected product) for lower price.

Digital Cameras by Resolution

I like the idea a lot. It gives a very high level view of the product category and may tip you to alternative products that are worth considering. After you make the decision about what kind of the product you want by looking at the charts, you can finalize your selection by reading the reviews for that specific model — all conveniently served to you with price comparison data.

In addition, I just love the implementation. The mix of flash and AJAX practically stole my heart. Great job guys!

Compare book prices — Web20 approach (Poll)

Starting with this post I am wading into the area of vertical price comparison engines — sites that specialize in certain niches.

Books, movies and music seem to represent a niche where a comparison engine is relatively easy to implement and as the result it is very popular among small-scale startups (credit card offers is probably another such example).

There are several popular old-timers in the niche but instead I would like to cover a few very little known companies that have been playing with some amazing web technologies and doing a few innovative things compared to the legacy heavy-hitters.

The most noticeable functionality that sets these sites apart is the ability to combine several items in a group (bundle) and compare prices for that group as if it was one item. Since these websites know how much it will cost to ship the bundle to you they can calculate the bottom line — weather you order the items separately or from the same store.

All of the reviewed here websites make a good job visually presenting the search results so that you have essential information up front with cross links to relevant items that might be of an interest to you. The kind of links are those to items by the same author (books), the same artist (movies and music), or from similar category.

Ugenie

Ugenie is probably the most functionality rich price comparison engine reviewed here. The tags and public bundles are there to satisfy the most demanding users and affiliate program is to catch the eye of webmasters.

Ugenie shouldn’t complain about lack of publicity. Covered by TechCrunch and other blogs it is the only vertical engine in the niche that I know to have attracted financing from the side. The startup has offices in California and Bangalore, India.

Pros:

  • During search users
    a) can exclude merchants by name or rating — in case I have merchant preferences, I can permanently exclude some from the search
    b) can exclude coupons — this is useful if you for some reason cannot use the coupons Ugenie is trying to apply
  • Textbooks integration — university students can list textbooks by entering the department and term information. Double checking the list before you order the books would probably be a good idea
  • Tags integration — I like this feature which helps me find relevant books. I didn’t like the fact that there is not easy access to the list of all tags. Since Ugenie doesn’t make use of categories this can be a problem if you don’t know what to search and just came to browse books
  • Public bundles — popular groups (bundles) that people create become public and can be viewed by everyone. This is a great tool to find relevant books which people often buy together. Kind of works similar to “Customers who bought this item also bought” you often see at Amazon

Cons:

  • In bundled search, no way to see all merchants — this is partially compensated by the ability to exclude merchants. Yet I would appreciate the full list and easiness to pick my favorite merchants that comes with it
  • No book rating and few book reviews — compared to the other two websites Ugenie doesn’t make use of Amazon API to display the book ratings and reviews.

Note, Ugenie is currently running a promotion. Spend $50 on books — get a movie ticket, spend $80 — get two. Promotion ends January 25, 2007. Tickets expire March 31, 2007. More details available from the company blog.

BooksPrice

BooksPrice is a self financed startup based in New York. The website is very nicely built and has simple and easy to use interface. Lucy Orbach, a co-founder, has recently sent me an email with details on new functionality they have just added: RSS price watcher (read below for details).

I liked the idea of internet browser toolbar that launches price comparison by selecting an ISBN and clicking on a toolbar button, but somehow it didn’t work in Firefox 2.0 which I am using. The link2us section explains how webmasters can install a BooksPrice branded link or a widget on their site or blog.

Pros:

  • During search users
    a) can select international shipping — might appeal to international users who buy from US merchants,
    b) can apply store membership — e.g. if I have Amazon prime membership (free shipping on all orders) Booksprice will take it into account when calculating the final price
  • Amazon wish-list integration — I wasn’t able to verify how it works but presumably you can find an Amazon wishlist by name or email and work off of the list when comparing the prices
  • RSS price watcherannounced just last week RSS price watcher is an alternative way to keep track of book price changes. Instead of signing up to an email alert you subscribe to RSS feed for a specific item.

Cons:

  • In search results: no sales tax estimate — in my example Walmart results came on top even though if sales tax is taken into consideration Walmart will not be the best deal
  • Incorrect results in bundle search with one-time use coupons, no way to exclude coupons — in my example TextbooksRus was quoted as having the best deal however the results assumed I could apply Google Checkout $10 coupon to each book in the bundle. This is obviously wrong since it is a one-time use coupon and can only be applied once to the entire purchase
  • Comparison cart section sometimes disappears and there is no link to access it — this is most likely a UI bug. As soon as I start adding books, the cart shows back up with all my books in there
  • No user accounts — this makes things a little harder for return users. You have to configure your preferences each time you come back. The default configuration has worked fine for me though

CompareBook

I was able to find very little information on CompareBook. The about page doesn’t say much while domain is registered to Alliance Enterprises LLC in Utah. CompareBook seem to be trying to set themselves apart from the competitors by offering the lowest price guarantee on the books you buy via the website.

The comparison engine has nice interface and makes even more use of JavaScript and AJAX than the competitors — though a little excessive to my liking. I appreciated the multiple levels of categorization which allowed me to browse books in a familiar tree-structured hierarchy. Just as BooksPrice the website owners lure webmasters by branded links and widgets.

Pros:

  • Price alert functionality — traditional email alert functionality. Receive an email whenever the lowest price for the book of your choice drops.
  • Lowest price guarantee — an interesting twist in the CompareBook marketing campaign. The price you pay is actually guaranteed to be the lowest at the time of the purchase. Certain limitations apply
  • Multi-level category hierarchy — makes browsing books similar to browsing files on your hard drive.

Cons:

  • Few search customization options — CompareBook has the least search customization options among the three websites reviewed here. Also I couldn’t find a way to tell apart new from used books in the bundle mode.
  • Slow search — as I was comparing these websites side by side the searches on CompareBook were taking longest to execute
  • No user accounts — CompareBook doesn’t support user accounts. However with so few customization options this is not much of an issue
  • Books only, no movies or music — unlike its competitors CompareBook compares only books. I would prefer to have single place to come for all these things.

Conclusion

The new breed of price comparison engines feature eye catching user interface and functionality that should be more than sufficient for an average bargain hunter. Each engine covers around 30 merchants and offers some distinctive features. Overall Ugenie seems to be the leader functionality wise however the difference is not that significant — it is surely not enough to pay back the $5 million financing they received last year.

Compared to the old-timers, none of the new websites seem to include eBay into the search. If this feature is critical for you go to AllBookStores or AddAll instead. Here is another observation. Pricegrabber, one of the horizontal search engines in my list, has a feature called Bottomline which in essence does bundling. However since this is not a specialized search engine the list of supported book retailers is much shorter.

I personally couldn’t make up my mind which website I prefer. I like the categories of CompareBooks, search customization of Ugenie, and the full list of bundled results at BooksPrice. I didn’t like the absence of sale tax estimate at BooksPrice, the absence of books ratings in Ugenie, and the fact that I cannot compare movies/music at CompareBook. Have you made your choice? Which website do you like?

Compare your shipping options with RedRoller

Price comparison websites are the best bargain hunter’s friend. I reviewed horizontal comparison engines in the past (those that compare prices on anything you buy online) however there are so many more vertical websites that focus on a narrow market niche (real estate, air fares, hotel rates - just to name a few). This is my first attempt to review one of them. Expect more reviews like this in the future.

So what is RedRoller? The best way to describe RedRoller is to say that it does for shipping packages what Orbitz and Travelocity do for travel. You enter where you are and what you want to ship and RedRoller will list your available shipping options along with the rates and estimated delivery times.

RedRoller

These carriers are covered: USPS, DHL, Eastern Connection and Overnite Express. UPS is not in the list and I cannot find FedEx despite the fact that it was mentioned when the service launched in June this year. International shipping is not supported either however the company has plans to add it in future.

RedRoller is pleased to announce that international shipping capabilities will be available shortly. We appreciate the many hundreds of comments from our users on this important functionality, which we are targeting for later this year.

Registration is free and there is no upfront cost or monthly fee (compare this to what PitneyWorks charges a month for their mailstation). After you choose the carrier and the type of service you want you can print the shipping label and arrange for package pickup — all from your RedRoller account.

RedRoller accepts major credit cards and PayPal as a payment and reportedly earns revenue through affiliated marketing and advertising. However I couldn’t find any advertising on the pages which is a little strange.

If you ship to the same people most of the time then you will find useful the integrated address book. Do you often sell things from eBay?

RedRoller can automatically synchronize your eBay auction(s) status and history. You will then be able to quickly and easily ship your sold eBay items directly from RedRoller!

All your past shipments are stored and you can track the delivery status of each and print an expense report from the Tools section of your account. You can even sign up for an email alert to notify you when your packages get delivered.

Conclusion

The absence of UPS and FedEx seriously limits the value of this service for power users however if you are as cheap as myself and rarely use anything but USPS then you will appreciate the helping hand RedRoller offers at figuring out what shipping options work the best in each particular case.




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