The speed and formidable search tools of the Internet have turned the World Wide Web into a bonanza for shoppers. No longer do bargain hunters have to visit individual merchants' Web sites to find the best prices and place orders.
Online shopping has become so sophisticated that specialized comparison sites now give consumers an abundance of tools to track the best deals. Consumers who log on to conduct research can take advantage of detailed descriptions and peer reviews to an unprecedented degree.
A recent study by Harris Interactive found that 92 percent of shoppers conduct research online before they purchase a product, whether they buy over the Internet or at the store.
"The widespread use of the Internet as a global shopping cart has elevated the importance of product-comparison Web sites, as they have become a bridge between the in-store and virtual-shopping experience," said Grant Whitmore, executive vice president of Consumer Guide.
With the holiday season upon us, consumers will put the growing popularity of online shopping sites to the test. According to the National Retail Federation, nearly 43 percent of consumers plan to purchase holiday gifts online, an increase of 5 percent from a year ago.
It's a two-way street for retailers and consumers. The structured content and navigational simplicity of the better sites empower consumers to get the best bang for the buck. At the same time, online retailers—who pay fees to have their products featured on those sites—are gravitating to these shopping engines because it puts them where the customers are.
In producing this report, we scoured the Internet for the leading comparison-shopping Web sites. We looked for interfaces that offered the best combination of features without bogging down the user with cumbersome details.
Our expectation was that we would find one or two best-to-use sites for a particular category of products, such as clothing, electronics, or vehicles. But we found that comparison-shopping sites have become so well-developed that few of them stood out as the best to use for any one product category.
Best of the Breed
One of the first online shopping-comparison sites remains one of the most reputable. Consumer Guide (http://products.consumerguide.com) is an Internet mainstay, presenting product evaluations in 16 different categories, including appliances, mobile communication, sports and recreation, and television and video.
The site's design makes selecting product reviews, product pricing, buying guides, or articles as easy as pointing and clicking within a simple horizontal index bar across the top of the page. After you select a topic, a comprehensive alphabetical index appears on the rest of the page.
Few navigational approaches could be easier than this, except perhaps for the one put forth by newcomer Become.com, a portal that consists of one simple search window, a la Google, laid out on an otherwise empty page. You enter a product name or category and select a button marked Shop or Research. Clicking on the former brings up links to vendors; the latter produces links to the most-recent consumer news.
A third innovative approach can be found on NexTag.com. The site's range of consumer information is a bit more extensive than other high-powered comparison sites. For instance, consumers can explore mortgage and financial services, automotive sales, and travel bargains. Clicking on the More link in the index will call up an exhaustive listing of products from A to Z.
The featured sites in this category by no means play second fiddle to the best-of-breed sites. Quite the contrary, our picks for mainstream shopping needs are filled with top-of-the-line features.
ShopZilla offers details on more than 25 million products from over 45,000 stores. The site displays product pictures, detailed descriptions, and consumer reviews. You can add items of interest to a personal Shopzilla List and compare features side by side.
At PriceGrabber.com, you can compare products and services gathered under 22 categories that range from Apparel to Video Games. The Web site, which is affiliated with Consumer Guide, also offers shoppers the ability to compare thousands of merchants and pricing information for products and services.
Shopping.com puts more emphasis on where to find products and on what consumers have said about their buying experience. Consumer feedback is linked to reviews from the Epinions community. The user interface is clean and simple. Just enter a word or phrase to describe the search terms and select a category from the drop-down window. Or click the already detailed product listings from within seven categories.
In the specialty product field, some of the most sought-after information is on cell phones and rate plans. Delly Tamer, founder and CEO of LetsTalk.com, said he believes consumers need to educate themselves, compare rate plans, and get the best deal available. His dedicated comparison site puts the information and the retail agent a few keyboard clicks away.
"The vast majority of visitors use this site only for research, and that's OK," said Tamer. "But we are also seeing consumers looking to change their handset more often." That, he noted, is one of the biggest draws to his shopping site. "It used to be that consumers would upgrade phones every 18 to 24 months. Now they do this more likely once a year," he said, adding that consumers now are using their cell phones to make a fashion statement.
Consumers looking for comparisons on more than minutes need only visit MyRatePlan.com. There they will find exhaustive material on credit-card rates, flights, hotel rooms, loans, insurance rates, long-distance telephone plans, and the latest in Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) options.
Rather than provide a forum for customers to chit-chat about their experiences buying individual items, the site lets you read daily blogs on pressing consumer issues and add your own comments. For example, a recent forum focused on rising insurance rates for homeowners. MyRatePlan.com is one of the most versatile product-specific sites available.
More Than Just Research
Comprehensive product information is obviously important, but the convenience of actually making a purchase from your computer should not be understated.
When shopping at a traditional brick-and-mortar store, you have to factor in travel time, gas costs, and taxes, which can add considerably to the cost of the product itself. "Consumers who shop online are much more inclined to complete their transaction online since they have already done the research and know exactly what they want to purchase," said Cam Tram, a spokesperson for NexTag.com. What's more, the regulatory environment is still loose enough that some vendors charge no sales tax for online purchases; others offer free or discounted shipping.
The bottom line is that consumers save 18 percent to 20 percent on average by using comparison-shopping sites to buy products on the Web, according to research by a trio of economics professors (Michael Baye at the University of Indiana, John Morgan at the University of California at Berkeley, and Patrick Scholten at Bentley College).
Michael Yang, CEO and founder of Become.com, framed the appeal of shopping sites in equally simple terms: consumers find them convenient, easy, and quick to use, he said. "It helps people find the best product at the best price. Online product research and price comparison shopping will increasingly become a mainstream online activity."