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December 6, 1998

Comparative shopping services have a long way to go

By Timothy C. Barmann

With the holidays approaching, merchants are pushing on-line shopping at full tilt.

The pitches are appealing: It's easy. It's fast. You'll save time. You'll save money.

True. True. True. But that last promise seems somewhat dubious. After all, when you head to eToys.com to buy some Legos for your child, how do you know you're really getting a bargain?

That's where comparative shopping guides can help. Such services are offered by a handful of companies that claim to find the best prices for all sorts of items, from Barbie dolls to flowers to computer systems.

Here's how most of them work: On a Web site, you enter a keyword for the item you are looking for. The site goes out and scans databases of dozens of merchants that have agreed to share pricing information. The site then displays a list of matching items, along with the name of the merchant and the item's price. Once you find a price you like, you can click on a link to the merchant's site and buy the item.

Comparative shopping services do have the potential to save you money and time. But with a couple exceptions, these services have a long way to go.

I tried a few of these sites, and using them required more work than it should have. And in one case, the sites didn't find the best price for a particular item I was looking for. On top of that, most of them are slow, since they have to go out on the Internet and search dozens of databases for each query you make.

Ocean State Online, the local Web site operated by Cox Interactive Media, offers such a shopping service as one of six main options (http://www.oso.com). The service is actually run by another company, Bottom Dollar, which contracts with a number of different sites. Bottom Dollar charges merchants to be listed on its site.

It was simple to get started. I entered ``Windows 98'' and chose ``software'' from a list of about 10 categories, hoping to find a good deal on the upgrade version of Microsoft's flagship product.

But the response was daunting. The site found 202 matches from 10 different dealers. But only a handful were actually for Windows 98 software. Most of the items were products that run under Windows, such as ``Tetris collection for Windows 98.''

After wading though the long list, the lowest price the service found was $78.95, a slight savings compared to prices advertised at local retail stores.

The best price, however, came from another shopping site called Price Scan (http://www.pricescan.com). Price Scan was much faster than the other shopping guide sites I tried and it beat the others with a price of $58.95 for the Windows 98 upgrade.

Price Watch extols the fact that it does not charge merchants to be listed in their service.

``It seems obvious to us that if a price guide restricts its listings to those vendors who have paid to be included, then its database more accurately reflects the source of its revenue, not necessarily the best products at the lowest prices,'' the site says. Company revenues comes from advertising and from the sale of its pricing information, the site says.

I didn't have the same success in finding a bargain for the latest version of Adobe Type Manager Deluxe. It's software that lets you install and manage certain types of fonts that Windows can't handle on its own.

Adobe sells it for $69.95 on its own site. I tried a few different shopping services, including Bottom Dollar and another service called Jango (http://www.jango.com). Bottom Dollar found a merchant selling it for $62.96; Jango found an even better price -- $55.95. But neither service found the best deal of all: The very same product was being sold at Surplus Auction, a site run by Egghead.com, for $3.

I couldn't find this Adobe software at the Price Scan site, which lacks the ability to search from all products it keeps track of.

One site worth checking out if you are looking for computer hardware is called Price Watch (http://www.pricewatch.com). Unlike some of the other search agent sites, merchants enter their own price information on the Price Watch site. Like Price Scan, searches were fast.

A great feature of Price Watch is that it provides key information about merchants, including their hours, what credit cards they take, what their return policies are, and contact information. Merchants pay Price Watch to be listed on its site.

Another site that is a definite must if you are looking for a cellular phone or wireless service is called Wireless Dimension (http://www.wirelessdimension.com). It's one of the best examples I've seen of how the Web can help buyers comparison shop. Wireless Dimension lists the calling plans for all the wireless carriers in the top 50 markets in the U.S., including Providence.

This region is now one of the most competitive in the country, with six different carriers now selling wireless service. You could spend days calling each company or visiting their Web sites to learn the details and prices of their various plans. But Wireless Dimension does all this for you.

The site is operated by Nth Dimension, a Bothell, Washington company started by two college friends who left jobs at Microsoft and Cisco Systems to start the company. About half of the company's 55 employees update the pricing plans on the site daily, according to Leigh Barer, a spokeswoman for the company.

Wireless Dimension also displays coverage maps, lists local dealers, and even lets you do side-by-side comparisons of various plans.

The company makes money by selling ad space on the site; from brokerage fees it gets when it sends a buyer to a carrier's on-line store; and from selling anonymous marketing information about the behavior of site visitors, Barer said. It doesn't charge carriers just to be listed on the site.

The only downside I could find was that it only lets you buy directly from carriers that have signed marketing agreements with the company. So even though Bell Atlantic Mobile, for example, has an on-line store, Wireless Dimension won't send you there because it doesn't yet have a referal deal with Bell Atlantic.

Where is comparative shopping headed? A fascinating research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology may give some clues.

It's called Kasbah, and it uses software ``agents'' to find items and to actually negotiate for you, said graduate student David Wang, who is working on the project.

Users of Kasbah, which operates through a Web site (http://kasbah.media.mit.edu), fill out information about what they want to buy or sell. The service, which is free, is used now just for books and music.

If you are selling something, you can tell the software what price you want to get, and you can also specify the lowest amount you're willing to take. Likewise, buyers enter how much they want to spend and how high they will go for a particular item. You can even instruct the software to change your target price as time goes on.

The software agents ``dicker'' with each other. When the agents strike a deal, you get some E-mail telling you so.

It sounds a little scary. With all the junk E-mail floating around, imagine getting a message out of the blue that tells you have just bought a new car.

Shopping guides and comparison services:

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the Computers and Technology page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.